Steel and shipping
When the most recent round of TIGER grants was announced in September, Duluth Seaway Port Authority in Minnesota received $10 million to increase general cargo handling capacity by improving the 28-acre Garfield Pier and connecting it to roads and railroads.
It was a nice coda for the career of Adolph Ojard, who retired at the end of the month as executive director after a decade leading the port.
He has also served as president of the American Great Lakes Ports Association (AGLPA) and chairman of the U.S. delegation of the American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA).
Ojard grew up in a family employed in the fishing and shipping business. His dad was in the merchant marine during World War II and a commercial fisherman on Lake Superior before becoming master of Edna G, a steam-powered tugboat in Two Harbors, Minn.
That tug was an integral part of U.S Steel’s Duluth, Missabe and Iron Range Railway (DM&IR) where Ojard worked his way through college on its docks.
At graduation, he joined U.S. Steel, advancing through the ranks of its various railroad and water transportation operations.
In 1994 he became president of barge line Warrior & Gulf Navigation, which also had stevedoring operations at both Alabama’s Mobile and Port Birmingham. Most of the barge line’s tonnage serviced the Fairfield Works in Birmingham.
“We were taking iron ore from Venezuela and Brazil up to Birmingham, as well as coke that was originating out of Japan,” he said. The barges would sometimes take coking coal originating in the Birmingham/Tuscaloosa region, bring it to Mobile for export to Japan where it was made into coke, that was then shipped back to Birmingham.
“That’s transportation,” Ojard said.
The barge line also handled slab steel and exported wood chips to Japanese paper manufacturers.
After Warrior & Gulf he became general manager of U.S. Steel’s Great Lakes Fleet. After he left, those ships were sold to Canadian National Railway.
The twin ports of Duluth and Superior handle about 40 million tons of cargo annually, 99 percent of which is dry bulk cargo. Ojard said roughly 35-40 percent of the cargo is iron ore, 30 percent is coal, 10 percent is grain, and the balance is a mixture of other bulk commodities such as limestone, cement, and salt.
The port includes 49 miles of waterfront and 17 miles of channels inside the harbor. In addition to public facilities, there are about 20 private terminals.
The port handles about 150,000 freight tons of heavy-lift cargo each year. These include components for wind turbines bound for various locations in the Midwest, as well as machinery destined for the oil sands in northern Canada.
The port has begun to receive imported kaolin clay from Brazil for the paper industry. It arrives in bulk, 18,000 to 20,000 tons at a time, and then is processed into slurry and shipped in tanker trucks.
Duluth’s last steel mill shut down in the early 1970s, but steel continues to be a major driver of activity through the port, which loads taconite pellets into ships.
Ojard said engagement with the public is important for the success of the maritime industry. AGLPA started a PR program called Marine Delivers “to deal with some of the negative press that we were getting” and a voluntary program of continuous environmental improvement in the shipping industry called Green Marine.
Limited government funding, he believes, will result in increased cooperation between businesses and environmental groups, seemingly strange bedfellows that he said are “natural bedfellows.”
For example, he said spoils from maintenance dredging can be used to create new aquatic habitat, something that appeals to environmentalists. Ports should look for such “twofer” opportunities.
He believes the outlook for shipping on the Great Lakes is bright — “they are able to accept tremendous amounts of new capacity. Bulk materials moving through the Great Lakes system are true job creators. These are materials that are the building blocks of industry.”
Ojard said he would like to see LNG used to power ships, trains, and other equipment.
“As fast as we can we should be trying to move it into our transportation network,” he said. “We’ve got 55 ships sailing on the Great Lakes that are U.S. flag and I think there is a tremendous opportunity and a lot of public good to be done if we could get those converted to LNG, both from a performance standpoint, as well as the carbon footprint.”
The short voyages that bulk carriers make on the lakes are ideal for the use of LNG, he said, and Duluth could be an LNG bunkering port.
Interlake Steamship announced in May plans to power its ships with LNG.
It might require some government support, but Ojard said “it is in the public interest to do it.”
In addition to ships and trains, he said mining equipment in the Mesabi Range mines could be powered with LNG.
Ojard said while he supports the crewing and ownership provisions of the Jones Act, he thinks the country could benefit by giving coastal carriers the ability to buy ships built abroad.
He also thinks this would not greatly harm shipyards, because “maintenance is where shipbuilders make their money now. They don’t build, they maintain.
“We’d have more sailors and we’d have higher margins which would permit us to recapitalize their ships. Our shipyards would be more profitable with more ships to maintain in dry dock, etc.,” he said.
He points to Canada where elimination of a 25 percent duty previously charged on new vessels imported into Canada has resulted in a fleet renewal.
“They have gone through a tremendous recapitalization of their ships and have been very successful on reducing fuel costs, improving efficiency and reducing their environmental footprint,” Ojard said.