Language included in the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2019, which was approved by the House of Representatives on May 24, directs the "U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and all involved executive branch agencies, to expedite necessary reviews, analysis, and approvals in order to speed the required upgrades at the Soo Locks."
The legislative language focuses on the need to duplicate the Poe Lock at Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. Congress authorized construction of a second Poe-sized lock in 1986, but the project stalled due to an inaccurate estimate of its benefits by the Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps has acknowledged the initial estimate was based on the false premise that the railroads could move the cargo stranded by a failure of the lock and is recalculating it. An economic reevaluation report is expected soon and the updated benefits estimate should enable the project to be funded, the Lake Carriers' Association (LCA) reported.
Congressman Paul Mitchell (R-MI) offered the language that was included in the National Defense Authorization Act, which reads: "The committee understands that the Soo Locks on the St. Marys River at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan are the only waterway connection from Lake Superior to the rest of the Lower Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway. The committee is concerned that of the two current operational locks, only the Poe Lock is large enough to accommodate the 1,000-foot carriers necessary to transport a majority of the iron ore used in domestic steel production. The committee notes that this lock is near the end of its 50-year useful lifespan and that the United States Army Corps of Engineers is reevaluating a past economic evaluation report to update the Soo Locks' benefit to cost ratio.
"The committee believes that a failure at the Soo Locks would have drastic impacts on national security, in that the United States iron mining-integrated steel production-manufacturing supply chain is dependent on the Soo Locks, and there is no redundancy. Indeed, such a failure would cripple steel production that is used for national defense priorities. Therefore, the committee urges the Commander, US Army Corps of Engineers, and all involved executive branch agencies to expedite necessary reviews, analysis, and approvals in order to speed the required upgrades at the Soo Locks."
Upon passage of the legislation in the House, Rep. Mitchell stated: "As the newest member of the House Armed Services Committee, I was proud to play a part in the creation of this bill, and am also proud that my first action on the House Armed Services Committee was reaffirming the national security importance of the Soo Locks. Nearly all domestic iron ore - which is required for certain steel production, a substantial part of our economy and essential for national defense - travels through the Soo Locks. Steel production critical to our nation's military and millions of American jobs is dependent on the Soo Locks, and there is no redundancy or alternatives to the locks. That's why I am glad the full House of Representatives is urging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and all involved executive branch agencies, to expedite necessary reviews, analysis, and approvals in order to speed the required upgrades at the Soo Locks. I will continue to do everything and anything I can in Congress to get this project built, either as a member of the House Armed Services Committee or Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, conversations with my colleagues and the Administration, or on bills like this. I am also glad the House passed my amendment that focuses on eliminating burdensome and ineffective procurement rules that add no value and result in no cost savings to the government or contractors."
President Trump recently voiced his support for upgrades to the Soo Locks. Speaking to a rally in Washington Township, Mich., on April 28, the President stated: "The Soo Locks are going to hell. You know that, right? And we're going to get them fixed up."
Construction of new locks at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, has often been tied to national defense. The now obsolete Davis and Sabin locks were built during World War I. The MacArthur Lock was constructed at a furious pace to meet demand for iron ore during World War II and 10,000 troops were stationed at the "Soo" to guard the Locks. Work began on the Poe Lock in 1961, the height of the Cold War, the LCA reported.
"Rep. Mitchell has been a tireless advocate for a second Poe-sized lock and Great Lakes shipping in general," said Jim Weakley, president of LCA, the trade association representing U.S.-flag vessel operators on the Great Lakes. "Michigan would be the state hardest hit by a lengthy failure of the Poe Lock. A Department of Homeland Security study determined a six-month closure of the Poe Lock would push Michigan's unemployment rate to nearly 23 percent. Nationwide, 11 million Americans would lose their jobs. We must build a second Poe-sized lock as soon as possible."