Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, USA - September 18, 2016: The Soo Locks on the St. Mary's River in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan framed by a rainbow.

As we discussed in part one of this series, the Soo Locks have been integral to our nation’s infrastructure and trade facilitation since their creation in 1855. The four navigation locks comprise the busiest lock system in the world, with about 80 million tons of freight moving through the system each year during a 42-week navigation season. However, using just two of the Soo Locks is no longer sufficient, and only one of the locks, the Poe Lock, is large enough to accommodate modern 1,000-foot vessels. In this part of the series, we will look at the Poe Lock’s importance to our nation’s economy and the potentially devastating outcome if the 122-year-old lock were to fail.

In 2017, the Poe Lock handled 89 percent of the total tonnage that transited the Soo Locks, with the highest volume commodities including iron ore, coal, and limestone. To put that into perspective, more than 90 percent of the iron ore that is produced in the United States must pass through the locks to reach steel mills in the lower Great Lake region. Considering the majority of commodities can only travel by way of the Poe Lock, it is a potential single point of failure to the critical infrastructure of the many industries through the Great Lakes system.

In 2014, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a report that claimed if the lock were to be taken out of service, approximately 70 percent of all traffic through the system would be halted, including key commodities for the steel industry and potentially cutting off the energy source for power plants along the Great Lakes system. In 2015, DHS released another report revealing disastrous impacts due to a closure scenario of six months for the Poe Lock:

  • A disruption would cause an almost complete shutdown of Great Lakes steel production.
  • A halt of steel production would cause almost all North American appliance, automobile, construction equipment, farm equipment, mining equipment, and railcar production to cease within weeks.
  • The impact on North American industries would result in widespread bankruptcies and dislocations throughout the economy.
  • Almost 11 million people would likely be unemployed as a result of the impact and the North American economies would likely enter a severe recession.
  • Due to the fact that there is currently no redundancy for the Poe Lock, existing rail, truck, and aircraft infrastructure is insufficient to support the vast quantities of tonnage that would have to bypass the lock system.

These grave findings show the dangerous and potentially devastating impacts a temporary closure of the Poe Lock would have on the nation’s economy. The lock has not had a major upgrade since 1969 and could experience a shutdown at any moment, which has many politicians and interest groups fighting for funding for a new lock. Read more in part three of this series about solutions the federal and state governments can help provide to ensure a safe, reliable, and efficient lock system.

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