Iron ore shipments to Midwestern steel mills are down 26 percent so far this year, after an unforgiving winter choked the Great Lakes with the thickest and most extensive ice in decades.
Lake freighters bound for Northwest Indiana mills struggled with icy conditions well into April, but shipments finally returned to a normal level last month, according to the Lake Carriers Association. Iron ore shipments over the Great Lakes reached 6.4 million tons in May, about the same as what it had been in May 2013.
Shipping companies are trying to replenish ore stockpiles at local mills after the worst ice in 35 years, and would have shipped 600,000 additional tons in May if their fleets were at full strength. But three 1,000-foot-long freighters were out of commission because of damage caused by the heavy ice in March and April.
So far this year, about 12.7 million tons of iron ore has been shipped from mines in Minnesota and Michigan to Midwestern steel mills, concentrated primarily in Northwest Indiana.
The largest cargo in May was 67,293, a 2,800 ton increase over last year but less than maximum capacity.
Steel shipments are down 26 percent through the end of May because of brutal ice conditions that slowed passage across the Great Lakes through April. Coast Guard cutters, which spent nearly three times as many hours breaking ice this winter, did not even allow unescorted vessels to cross Lake Superior until May 2.
U.S. Steel had to curtail operations at Gary Works, the nation's largest steel mill, in April because the "unprecedented" amount of ice made it impossible to get enough raw materials from Minnesota's Iron Range. The company has already warned investors that the winter weather will dent its bottom line in the second quarter.
The seasonal halt to Great Lake shipping is usually 70 days, but it was more than 120 days this year, CEO Mario Longhi said during the most recent conference call with investors. The shipping woes were expected to limit production and reduce income from operations for the quarter.