The winter from hell has caused the shutdown of blast furnaces that normally burn around the clock at U.S. Steel Gary Works.
U.S. Steel has temporarily idled its blast furnaces and steelmaker operations at the massive steel mill, the largest in the nation, because ice on the Great Lakes has choked off access to vital raw materials. Gary Works, which stretches along seven miles of Lake Michigan's south shoreline, gets iron ore — an essential ingredient in steelmaking — from lake freighters that have not been able to navigate treacherous conditions that include 40-inch-thick shelf ice and stacks of ice chunks that reach as high as 14 feet tall.
Great Lakes ice cover had hit the highest point in 35 years this winter and is currently at 65.7 percent. Most problematically, Lake Superior is more than 80 percent frozen, which is preventing ships from hauling ore from Minnesota's Iron Range to Northwest Indiana steel mills.
"We are writing to inform you that U. S. Steel has temporarily curtailed its blast furnaces and steelmaking operations at our Gary Works due to unforeseen and unprecedented ice conditions on the Great Lakes that is delaying the transportation of critical raw materials," the company said in a letter to its customers. "These severe ice conditions have not occurred on the Great Lakes for more than three decades."
More than 5,800 employees work at the mill, which can produce 7.5 million net tons of steel a year and also includes finishing facilities. They continue to report to work.
In the letter, U.S. Steel warned customers that it might not be able to fulfill their orders and will try to identify alternative supply paths.
"We are working closely and are in continual contact with the United States and Canadian governmental authorities in an effort to expedite and obtain priority passage of our raw materials vessels on the Great Lakes," the letter said. "Unfortunately, passage has been prevented due to the ice conditions on the Great Lakes, which we hope will quickly improve as a result of recent warming temperatures. As result of this contingency, it is possible that our ability to timely fulfill your orders will be temporarily impacted. Please consider this letter notice of that possibility."
Berlin Metals President Roy Berlin does business with Gary Works and has been reassured that a flotilla of iron ore barges is on the way.
Iron ore freighters will be the first ships to pass through the Soo Locks in upper Michigan, but it is not clear when that will be, said Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Levi Read.
Normally, it takes an iron ore freighter 2 1/2 days to make the voyage from ports in upper Minnesota across Lake Superior, into the St. Marys River, through the Soo Locks at Sault Ste. Marie in Northern Michigan, down past the Straits of Mackinac and south to the mills at Lake Michigan's southern shore.
But the Northwest Indiana mill-bound convoy of freighters, which are being accompanied by two icebreakers, have been at sea for seven days and are still in Lake Superior.
No ships have yet passed through the St. Marys River, even though the locks opened March 25.
"There's in fact been a vessel traffic service directive that told the vessels it's too clogged up with ice," Read said. "There's no expiration."
U.S. and Canadian icebreakers have been working to clear pathways for commercial ships through the Great Lakes, but the temperature will have to warm up significantly before they become more navigable, Read said.
Given the current conditions, the Coast Guard expects to still be breaking ice in May, when it normally would be placing buoys for recreational boaters.
ArcelorMittal, which operates integrated mills at Indiana Harbor and Burns Harbor, is monitoring the situation closely because of the significant delays in raw material deliveries, spokeswoman Mary Beth Holdford said. The company's Northwest Indiana plants however have been able to maintain finished inventories and on-time deliveries despite the harsh winter, partly because it sources a significant amount of materials from Lake Michigan ports.
Those ships do not have to pass through the Soo Locks. But the steelmaker does rely on passable waterways.
"ArcelorMittal’s three U.S. integrated facilities on the Great Lakes depend on our waterways for raw material shipments, which include roughly 21 million tons of iron ore per year," Holdford said. "This situation underscore the need for Congress to support the valuable work of the U.S. Coast Guard's heavy icebreaker Mackinaw and pass the Water Resources Development Act, which will provide crucial funding to the Army Corps of Engineers for the maintenance and modernization of our waterways."