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Economy

Nominated Coast Guard commandant voices support for new ice breaker on Great Lakes

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The Lake Carriers' Association says another heavy icebreaker is a necessity for Great Lakes shipping.

Even though the Great Lakes ice-breaking season has ended, some members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation are continuing to push for funding for a new heavy icebreaker on the Great Lakes to reduce shipping delays during the winter months.

During the first weeks of the shipping season last winter, more than a dozen ships were delayed by ice and gale-force winds. Some were delayed up to 60 hours in Whitefish Bay.

Overall shipping traffic through the Soo Locks during the peak winter season this year was down nearly 50% when compared to last year.

Shipping industry leaders said millions of dollars in losses are at stake for the manufacturing industry, and the Coast Guard must improve its icebreaking capacity. According to the Lake Carriers' Association, some shipping companies may have held off on sending out ships because of ice in the Great Lakes.

"This was an average or slightly below average ice year, and the Coast Guard didn’t have to do much icebreaking in the southern part of the Great Lakes," wrote James Weakley, President of the Lake Carriers' Associations, in an email to WCMU. "They were still unable to keep traffic moving in Lake Superior, the St. Mary's River and the Straits of Mackinac."

Coast Guard officials stationed in Sault St. Marie have told WCMU on multiple occasions this season that heavy winds were one of the main reasons for shipping delays this season, and the Coast Guard deployed icebreakers on the Great Lakes since December 2021 to make sure waterways were clear for safe passage.

"There's obviously a difference of opinion between Congress, the Coast Guard and industry about how to best tackle the challenge of maximizing transit on the Great Lakes during the winter months," said Senator Todd Young, a Republican representing Indiana, during a nomination hearing for Coast Guard Admiral Lisa Fagan, whom Joe Biden has nominated for Commandant of the Coast Guard.

During the hearing, Fagan was asked if she would support the funding and design of a new ice breaker on the Great Lakes.

"I am committed to fielding the icebreaking capacity that we need as a nation, particularly as it pertains to the Great Lakes," she said. "Our priority is an icebreaker that is at least as capable as the current Mackinaw."

Fagan added the Coast Guard currently has a fifteen person team working on the design of a new ice breaker. If the ice breaker is approved, it would be included in the 2023 Coast Guard budget.

"This is significant progress and an acknowledgment of need by the USCG," Lake Carries' Association Vice President Eric Peace said in an email.

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