The Stewart Cort make frequent iron ore deliveries to ArcelorMittl Burns Harnor almost year-round, even after winter has started. Sometimes, an icebreaker ship is needed to help it and others make their way when the Great Lakes freeze. Submitted image
The Stewart Cort make frequent iron ore deliveries to ArcelorMittl Burns Harnor almost year-round, even after winter has started. Sometimes, an icebreaker ship is needed to help it and others make their way when the Great Lakes freeze. Submitted image
n the winter, the Great Lakes typically freeze over and the Soo Locks close, making it impossible for lake freighters to haul ore pellets from Minnesota's Iron Range to Northwest Indiana's steel mills.

But the mills expect the cold, winds and snowstorms the harsh winters in the Region can bring and start preparing as much as 18 months in advance.

The integrated steel mills along the Lake Michigan lakeshore spend most of the year stockpiling iron ore pellets, limestone and other raw materials as they get ready for winter.

Gary Norgren, ArcelorMittal USA's general manager of mining operations, who previously served as manager of raw materials for eight years, has helped coordinate the ore boats, mines and railroads to ensure the company's steel mills in East Chicago, Burns Harbor and Cleveland have enough raw materials to run uninterrupted through the winter months.

The blast furnaces require a steady infusion of raw materials to forge the iron that's made into steel in basic oxygen furnaces.

"The vessles carry extra ore for nine months of the year," he said. "It amazes me how well it works."

It takes lake freighters about 6.5 days to complete a round trip between ore mines in upper Minnesota and the Calumet Region's steel mills, which they do nonstop every year between March and Jan. 15, when the Soo Locks close for 60 days.

"The locks use the 70 days for maintenance and vacation," Norgren said. "That 70 days is a very well-established block of time in their world."

ArcelorMittal USA tries to ensure it has at least 105 days worth of pellets to get through the winter, so it will cover until at least the middle of April if necessary.

"The first couple weeks there is still ice in the water and the weather isn't that great," Norgren said. "The run rate isn't as high when you're trying to replenish your inventory quickly. The boats only come every six days, so you don't want to lose ground."

About two ships come to ArcelorMittal Burns Harbor every week, while three come to ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor. The logistics become more challenging during the winter as the iron ore piles can freeze on the docks in Minnesota, drawing out the loading time. Strong winds and ice make it harder to navigate the Great Lakes.

But the freezing of the lake — which had its worst year in the past half century during the polar vortex of 2014 — has been far milder in recent years than normal. The Great Lakes had just over 11% ice cover last week, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.

U.S. Coast Guard ice cutters sometimes have to clear the path for ships to keep sailing to the steel mills in December and January.

"It takes a lot of people to ensure we can keep safely making steel in January and February," Norgren said. "We try to keep our facilities as steady as possible, even in the Northwest Indiana winter."

The steel mills have to take other winterization steps, such as salting roads for semi-trailer trucks that haul the steel and keeping water lines from freezing.

"We've been doing this for a lot of years and have a lot of experience," Norgren said. "It takes a lot of preparation but we get through it."
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