Westbound Shipping Slows as Workers Race Cold Weather to Fix Lock
THOROLD, Ontario (AP) _ The flow of ships west from the Atlantic Ocean into the St. Lawrence Seaway is slowing as shippers wait for the repair of a collapsed lock wall in the Welland Canal, officials say.
Preliminary repairs on the lock have progressed faster than expected, but officials said Monday they will nonetheless extend the blocked waterway’s season to clear an expected large shipping backlog.
Gay Hemsley, spokeswoman for the Canadian St. Lawrence Seaway Authority in Ottawa, said initial repairs should be completed late today or early Wednesday. Her estimate, made Monday, is two to three days sooner than officials offered Saturday.
Steel braces are being put into place to shore up the lock walls, and when 12 of them are installed the lock will be drained, said Malcolm Campbell, vice-president of the seaway’s western region.
After the first phase, contractors plan to rebuild the dilapidated wall and refill the Welland Canal’s No. 7 lock, Mrs. Hemsley said.
Despite the updated work schedule, Mrs. Hemsley said officials remain unsure when permanent repairs will be made so shipping can resume through the eight-lock canal 30 miles west of Buffalo, N.Y. The Canadians maintain the Welland Canal while the rest of the seaway is jointly run by the United States and Canada.
A 45-yard-long chunk of concrete fell out from the lock’s west wall last Monday, trapping a ship that was later freed from the lock.
Mrs. Hemsley said at one end of the 26-mile canal, connecting lakes Erie and Ontario and bypassing Niagara Falls, 32 northbound ships are anchored. Another 22 southbound ships are idled at the canal’s other end.
She said the seaway will extend its shipping season past the traditional Dec. 30 closing date to clear the anticipated backlog. Arrival of prolonged freezing temperatures and the formation of ice in the waterway will determine how long the seaway remains open, Mrs. Hemsley said.
She said she could not provide an estimate of how many ships were in the seaway as a whole, but shippers reported that at least 90 were idled.
In addition to the 54 ships anchored at Welland, 38 ships have passed through two locks at Massena, N.Y. going west since last Monday, according to Deputy Chief Engineer John Adams.
″I think it’s slowing down of course because of the incident,″ said Adams of the overall shipping rate. ″There are ships in Montreal Harbor. They are going to wait until they get word from their agents or companies that they can move again.″
On Monday, Canadian Transport Minister Don Mazankowski defended his government’s maintenance of the locks. Several American transportation officials had claimed the failure of the Canadians to adequate maintain the locks caused last week’s collapse.
Mazankowski said, however, that more than $16 million a year has been spent on seaway maintenance during each of the last three years.
Since the wall caved in, huge shipments of grain have been halted during the annual seasonal rush to get grain from Canadian and American Midwestern brokers to market. In the other direction, winter supplies meant for Midwest ports are facing lengthy delays.
Since the collapse, more than 1,000 shiphands have been reported furloughed. Idled ships cost between $10,000 and $20,000 a day per ship. At that rate, total losses are already exceeding $1 million a day.
Most of the affected shipments are of grain, including $5 million worth bound for the Soviet Union.
Port officials in Duluth, Minn., said Monday that city’s economy will suffer at least a $5 million setback because of the blockage. The breakdown could also erode confidence in the Great Lakes shipping industry and encourage companies to move international cargo by rail or river barge to ports on the Gulf of Mexico or the Pacific, port authorities said.
Last November, 165 ships were trapped in the seaway for up to 18 days when a lift-bridge failed at Valleyfield, Quebec.