There’s a good chance that the car you’re driving is made from American steel.
Steel comes from iron ore, and American car companies rely almost exclusively on the kind that’s mined in Minnesota and Michigan called taconite. It’s carried down the Great Lakes in 1,000-foot-long iron boats to the steel mills.
That supply chain relies on a critical piece of infrastructure at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan: the Soo Locks.
If there was a major problem there, the effects could send the entire nation into recession. And that has advocates saying it’s time to build a new lock – but they’ve been saying that for decades.
The problem is simple.
Lake Superior’s water level sits 21 feet higher than Lake Huron’s. Because of that, there are rapids in the St. Mary’s River which connects the two lakes.
The rapids are impassable for ships. But since the 1790s there has been a simple solution: locks. Locks are like an elevator for ships so they can avoid the rapids.
The Canadian freighter Tim S. Dool is slowly motoring into position into the Poe Lock. That’s the largest lock here at Sault Ste. Marie. It’s a giant pool of water, 1,200 feet long, with gates on both ends.
The water level in the lock can go up or down depending on which lake the boat is heading to. This boat is bound for Lake Huron carrying iron ore to a steel mill in Ontario.
It takes a gentle touch and some finesse to guide the Tim S. Dool into the lock. The boat has a diesel engine with nearly 11,000 horsepower.
Once in position, a giant gate swings together to close at the boat’s rear. The gate interlocks and forms a wall supporting the lock against the pressure of the St. Mary’s River and Lake Superior.
And the Tim S. Dool starts dropping from Lake Superior’s water level to Lake Huron’s.
The Poe Lock
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Kevin Sprague is in charge here at the Soo Locks. His job is to keep boats moving through the locks 24/7 for 9 months of the year.
Millions of tons of commodities like iron ore and coal pass through the locks each year. These are raw materials essential to the industrial economy.
Most of that cargo has to go through the Poe Lock.
“70 percent of the tonnage that comes through the facility is restricted to the Poe due to the size of the ships,” Sprague says. The smaller boats pass through the other, smaller lock.
“Moving iron ore from the mines to the steel mills in the lower lakes is very important,” Sprague says.
If there was an outage at the Poe, it could be a disaster for those steel mills and the auto companies that rely on them.
A long outage hasn’t happened at the Poe before. But last summer there was a failure at the Poe Lock’s smaller neighbor next door – the MacArthur Lock.
One of the gates broke. Sprague compares the gate to a roof on a house which carries a snow load.
“They’re carrying the water load into the walls,” Sprague says. “If at the peak … it doesn’t come together right and you put a head of water on there, the gates will collapse.”
The MacArthur Lock was out of commission for nearly three weeks while they drained the lock and fixed it. It was the longest outage of Sprague’s 25-year career.
During the outage, all the traffic that normally went through the MacArthur Lock had to be routed through the Poe instead.
But if it had been the reverse situation, and the Poe had gone down, the largest boats on the lake like the Tim S. Dool would have been stuck. And so would have millions of dollars worth of iron ore.
That scenario has many people advocating for an additional large lock the same size as the Poe to be built.
Sault Ste. Marie is a pretty small town compared to the economic importance of the locks.
Superior Coffee Roasting is just down the street from the locks. That’s where Linda Hoath is sitting.
Hoath, who was born at the Soo, is the executive director of the Sault Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. The Soo Locks, and the ships, are a big draw for tourists.
“It’s amazing to watch them,” Hoath says. “Years ago there used to be [a ship called] the Cliffs Victory and it was an amazing ship. It kind of had a nose on it that was so different. You could close your eyes and you knew it was her coming because of her sound.”
Hoath has been pushing for a new lock for decades. She says the threat of an outage at the Poe is too great to do nothing.
“It would be devastating to our whole state, the country and other countries,” Hoath says.
Worse than the Great Recession
Leaders in the shipping industry and in government agree with Hoath.
A report from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security released last fall described the Poe Lock as ‘the Achilles Heel of the North American industrial economy.’
It reported that if the Poe Lock closed for six months – a nightmare scenario – the result would be a nation spiraling into recession. Unemployment in Michigan could reach 20 percent. That’s higher than its peak during the Great Recession.
The problem is there is no alternative way to move vast quantities of iron ore to steel mills in the Midwest right now.
“You can’t put it on railroads, you can’t put it in trucks,” Hoath says. “There isn’t enough out there. We have no railroads up here. The auto industry would just be collapsing.”
The Homeland Security report says there are not enough trucks in all of the U.S. to move that amount of iron ore.
The Soo Locks have been critical for American manufacturing for decades.
During World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt stationed 20,000 troops at Sault Ste. Marie. He worried that Nazi bombers might strike the locks and put a critical wound to the American war machine.
Today, the main threat is not some faraway enemy, although terrorism is always a concern. The larger worry is the simple fact that the locks are aging.
“Our infrastructure in this country is crumbling,” says former Michigan Rep. Bart Stupak.
Stupak, who left office in 2011, spent his career in office trying to get a new lock built. It was nearly part of the 2009 stimulus package but it didn’t make the final draft.
The current Poe Lock is about 50 years old, but Stupak says building another one has not been a priority for the U.S. Army Corps.
“The Army Corps isn’t opposed to it,” Stupak says. “But they look at their budget every year and they say, ‘we have so many needs, so little money, how can we justify a whole new project when we can’t pay for the needed repairs on all the projects the Army Corps of Engineers has throughout the United States?’”
The U.S. Army Corps says a new lock would cost around $580 million and could take up to a decade to build.
Still, Bart Stupak says he’s optimistic about the future.
“We’re going to get a new member of Congress from northern Michigan,” Stupak says, “hopefully we’ll have [the Soo Locks] as one of their priorities.”
The U.S. Army Corps is taking a new look at the need for an additional lock. After the review, the project could move to the top of the Corps’ to-do list. That would make the lock a viable project for Congress to fund.
The study is not scheduled to be finished until 2018.