Great Lakes Icebreaking

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter MACKINAW leads a U.S.-flag laker through heavy ice. Photo courtesy United States Coast Guard.

There needs to be a second heavy icebreaker at least as capable as the USCGC Mackinaw in the Great Lakes, both for system resiliency and to meet the needs of commerce.  The U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) must also develop a realistic priority system for icebreaking and better manage their existing resources to replace the current floundering process.

During the winters of 2014 and 2015, the U.S. economy suffered losses of over $1 billion and 5,800 jobs because of the lack of effective Great Lakes icebreaking.  In 2018, another $1 billion and 5,000 jobs were lost due to inadequate icebreaking on the Great Lakes.

This year when the navigation locks at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan opened on March 25, 2020, the USCGC Mackinaw (WLBB-30) was the only icebreaker assigned to Whitefish Bay, the gateway between industries on the lower Great Lakes and raw materials along the shores of Lake Superior.  The Mackinaw is the only “heavy” icebreaker operated by the USCG on the Great Lakes.  Despite being one of the mildest ice seasons since 1973, the first commercial vessel to transit the Soo Locks in 2020 became beset in the ice because the USCGC Mackinaw could not cover the 500 square miles in Whitefish Bay alone.

Had the Mackinaw been unavailable due to a maintenance issue or a COVID-19 outbreak, the situation would have been much worse, if not catastrophic.  The remaining USCG fleet of icebreaking tugs and buoy tenders do not have the capability of the Mackinaw.  Heavy ice conditions on the Great Lakes typically occur not only in Whitefish Bay, but also Duluth/Superior Harbor, the St. Marys River, Green Bay, Saginaw Bay, the Straits of Mackinac, the Detroit/St. Clair rivers, and all of Lake Erie. The Mackinaw can only be in one place at a time.

During three of the past six years, USCG has been unable to keep Great Lakes waterways consistently open to commercial navigation when ice challenges commercial vessel traffic.  The ice season typically runs from December through April when 15 percent of the U.S.-flag fleet’s 90 million tons of cargo moves.  From January 15th to March 25th each year, the Soo Locks and most vessels enter a winter maintenance period.  This means 100 percent of the year’s cargo must be delivered to American steel mills, power plants, construction sites, and other sectors critical to the U.S. economy and American jobs before this period with only 80 percent of the days available.

USCG simply does not have the icebreaking resources on the Great Lakes to be able to maintain the 1,600 miles of open lake, connecting waterways, and rivers.  In 1979, USCG operated 14 icebreakers on the Great Lakes.  Now it’s nine.  The ability of USCG to break ice has weakened as larger, more capable ships were replaced by smaller, less capable icebreakers.  Not only is this smaller fleet required to break ice, they are also charged with buoy tending which often requires them to be removed from icebreaking duties when their services are still needed in the ice.  This endangers sailors, puts a strangle hold on vital winter commerce, and risks damage to vessels.  Vessels have been forced aground, sliced open, or involved in collisions as a direct result of inadequate icebreaking.

USCG icebreakers are also used for flood relief to break ice dams that form in rivers connecting or emptying into the Great Lakes flooding homeowners and other properties.  During this unprecedented period of high-water levels, USCG resources are stretched ever thinner.

Congress has recognized that USCG is not adequately resourced for icebreaking on the Great Lakes and has twice authorized the construction of another icebreaker at least as capable as the current heavy icebreaker, Mackinaw.  $14 million has been appropriated to stand up an acquisitions program office focused solely on the procurement of another heavy Great Lakes icebreaker.  Using the design of the Mackinaw, the project can begin immediately.  In the first three to six months the design can be refreshed, shipyard planning can be completed, and long lead time equipment can be ordered.  Steel cutting and fabrication can begin within one year after construction funding is appropriated. This “shovel ready” project can be built in the Great Lakes with raw materials from the Great Lakes and from steel milled in the Great Lakes.  It will serve the Great Lakes region and our nation for generations. The project's estimated cost is $162 million and will likely create 1,044 direct, induced, and indirect jobs.

While USCG has cited performance measures that claim they are resourced adequately, those metrics do not reflect the requirement USCG is charged with by the Executive Order 7521 on domestic icebreaking, “to meet the reasonable demands of commerce.”  USCG reports to Congress the availability of what they call “Tier 1 waterways.”  In the lakes there are only four, representing just a small fraction of the Great Lakes Navigation System.  To pad their effectiveness, USCG sets the bar high, indeed almost out of reach, to show that a waterway is unavailable, gaming the system in their favor and to the detriment of the U.S. economy.  They also take equal credit for waterway availability when the Soo Locks have closed and nearly all U.S.-flag lakers are undergoing winter maintenance.

The USCG also claims they are supplemented with Canadian icebreakers in U.S. ports and the shared U.S. and Canadian waters.  Unfortunately, that claim is unfounded.  Last year the two Canadian Great Lakes icebreakers spent less than six hours in shared waters when they escorted a vessel departing a Canadian port.  They spent no time in U.S. ports.  In contrast, U.S. icebreakers dedicated more than 130 hours breaking ice in Canadian harbors and covered virtually all of the icebreaking in the shared waters.  At the beginning of the ice season, both Canadian icebreakers were over 1,500 miles away in the Saint Lawrence River requiring U.S. icebreakers to leave U.S. ports in order to assist Canadian carriers into Canadian ports.  USCG buoy tenders were not available to break ice because they were busy working Canadian aids to navigation.  Although both Coast Guards claim to manage the Great Lakes Navigation System for icebreaking as a single system the resources and demands are not equally shared.  The Canadian Coast Guard provides two icebreakers to support nearly 90 Canadian-flag vessels. The USCG provides nine icebreakers to support over 50 U.S-flag vessels.  The U.S. measures “waterway availability” in only four areas and Canada measures icebreaking response time in hours, regardless of vessel location.

The Great Lakes Winter Commerce Act, H.R.5896, co-sponsored by representatives Gallagher (WI -08), Kaptur (OH-09), Dingell (MI-12), and Gibbs (OH-07) is a leap in the right direction for the Great Lakes.  It defines “the reasonable demands of commerce,” codifies into law the Great Lakes icebreaking mission, creates reporting requirements, and gives clear Congressional direction to USCG on domestic icebreaking.  This bi-partisan bill is critical for Great Lakes maritime commerce.

The Great Lakes are the heart of American industry, bringing jobs not only to the region but also to the nation.  This vital marine transportation system, which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says saves the economy $3.9 billion annually, is critical to U.S. manufacturing, construction, energy production, and agriculture, relying on icebreaking to keep the waterways open and commerce moving.

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