GARY | The nation's largest steel mill is still running at reduced capacity, and iron ore sourcing problems persist because of the worst winter for Great Lakes shipping in decades.
U.S. Steel notified customers three weeks ago it was forced to curtail production at Gary Works, a fully integrated mill that stretches for seven miles along the southern shore of Lake Michigan, because icy conditions kept it from getting enough iron ore. The raw material gets shipped over the Great Lakes and is essential to the steelmaking process.
Two of the four blast furnaces at Gary Works were in use earlier this week, but that has since changed and the situation remains fluid, spokeswoman Sarah Cassella said. Iron ore shipments arrived last week after lengthy delays, which were brought on by thick shelf ice and windbreaks of up to 14-feet-tall in Lake Superior.
"Gary Works is still operating at reduced capacity because of iron ore," Cassella said.
Northwest Indiana steel mills were not able to stockpile enough iron ore, coal and limestone – vital ingredients in the steelmaking process – this winter because the Great Lakes started to freeze on Dec. 6, said Glen Nekvasil, vice president for Lake Carriers' Association. That was the earliest point on record the Lakes began to freeze.
Lake freighters have struggled to make the voyage from the Iron Range in Minnesota to Northwest Indiana mills, which depend on shipments of iron ore or other raw materials.
"This is the worst winter since 1993 or 1994," Nekvasil said. "The last time ice breakers were out this late in the season convoying vessles was 1996. It's been a very brutal winter."
The United States and Canada operate five heavy ice breakers on the Great Lakes, and that was not enough this winter, Nekvasil said.
Many ships are not even trying to plow through shelf ice that is 40 inches thick in Lake Superior. The number of active commercial freighters on April 1 dropped to 23 from 39 a year ago. A few vessels forged ahead anyway since their customers desperately needed the cargo.
But a voyage that normally takes a freighter 2 1/2 days ended up lasting 13 days earlier this month.
"There are tens of thousands of jobs riding on this cargo, and we need to take a look at the adequacy of the icebreaking resources on the lakes," Nekvasil said. "The weather has moderated but the ice is too quick to melt on sunny days. Mother Nature is not going to get us out of this quickly."