BRIDGE BOUND: Behind the scenes of construction of new lock at the Soo Locks

Behind The Scenes: New Soo Lock Construction
Published: Apr. 17, 2023 at 11:19 AM CDT
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SAULT STE. MARIE, MI-- The 2023 Shipping season got underway just about three weeks ago on March 25th.

The Poe lock in Sault Ste Marie is at the heart of shipping in the Great Lakes, which is entering its 55th year of service - 5 years older than the 50-year lifespan for which it was designed.

Now, a multi-year, multi-billion dollar effort is underway aimed at ensuring nothing ever disrupts the flow of commodities through Sault Ste. Marie and to the lower great lakes.

Right Now, the lock in is the only one meant to handle larger commercial traffic, often carrying Iron Ore from the upper Great Lakes to the Steel Mills on the lower Great Lakes.

Rachel Miller, a Supervisory Civil Engineer with the Soo Locks, said a Poe Lock breakdown would have massive ripple effects down the supply chain.

“If the Poe Lock is not operational presumably during the shipping season the vessel traffic would prevent the ability to move taconite from the mines on the upper great lakes to the lower great lakes would cause ripple effects throughout the supply chain,” Miller said.

Nearly 500 miles from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in Chisholm, Kristen Vake, the Executive Director of the Iron Mining Association said a breakdown in the Poe Lock would be devastating.

“That relationship between our Iron Mines the Soo Locks, and the shipping industry is absolutely critical. We need a way to get those pellets to the steel mills so that we can make the steel that we all use in our everyday lives. So that relationship is not only impactful to iron mining, not only to steel making to the Soo locks, and the shipping industry as well,” Said Vake.

Vake went on to say, the economic impact of Iron mining in Minnesota is enormous, and any hiccup at the locks would be costly.

“Annually an estimated $4 billion goes to the State of Minnesota in economic impact because of Iron Mining. Then we also talk about the jobs. Direct and indirect jobs were talking around 12,000. Those are the folks that actually work at the mine and also all the vendor supplier industries. The economic impact is vast,” Vake said.

With that much money and that many jobs on the line, the mission of adding a third lock in Sault Ste. Marie has garnered support from Northland lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Minnesota’s U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D) says that is the reason the federal government has invested heavily in adding a third lock.

“We have put the funding into building a second lock. It is critical to the northern Minnesota economy that we keep the Sault Ste. Marie Locks updated,” said Klobuchar.

Republican Representative Pete Stauber of Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District agrees the economic impact would be devastating, but so would the national security implications.

“The taconite that is mined from the Iron Range makes over 80% of this nation’s steel, and steelmaking is a critical national security issue. So we must maintain the ability to get the taconite down to the lower great in order to have it processed and made into the metal,” Stauber said.

Back in Sault Ste Marie, they are hard at work to ensure that the worst-case scenario doesn’t become a reality building a second Poe-size lock 1,200 feet long, 110 feet wide, and 32 feet deep.

All in the footprint of a retired lock called the Saban lock.

Right now, work is underway to dam the entrance of the Saban Lock so crews have a dry environment to work in as the warmer summer months arrive.

Meanwhile, crews are working around the entrance of the lock on both the Lake Huron and Lake Superior sides to deepen the entrance to accommodate the passage of larger vessels.

Miller says the name of the game is safety, as work really begins to accelerate this summer.

“It is also a very old site so there are a lot of hazardous materials around here. The contractor has conducted an assessment of those materials and a big part of the work this summer is going to be safely abating that hazardous material removing them and demolishing those structures,” Miller said.

The new lock at the Soo is expected to open in 2030.