Harbors on fast track for dredging
Written by The Muskegon Chronicle   
Tuesday, 18 March 2008 06:11

An expedited dredging schedule should make the now-perilous harbors of Muskegon, Grand Haven and Holland passable before the scheduled arrival of the busy shipping season.

Dredging of Muskegon's outer harbor, the scene of four ship groundings in 2007, is likely to begin around the second week of April, weather permitting, said Tom O'Bryan, acting chief of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Lake Michigan Area Office in Grand Haven.

Dredging in Muskegon is expected to take six to eight weeks, and will focus on buildup of sand and silt between the outer pierheads but not the channel itself, which is of adequate depth for shipping, O'Bryan said.

The Muskegon work had originally been scheduled to start June 1 and finish up the first of July. However, that would have been cutting things a little close for Consumers Energy Co., which according to spokesman Dennis McKee has about a 100-day supply of coal at the B.C. Cobb generating plant at the east end of Muskegon Lake.

"If it occurs in April it should have no adverse impact on us," McKee said. "I would compliment the Corps for being so forward-thinking."

Coal shipments to Consumers typically arrive on large, deep-draft ships. Last August, and again in September, 1,000-foot coal-carrying freighters became stuck in Muskegon's outer harbor en route to the Cobb plant. The plant had enough coal on hand to absorb the resulting shipping delays, however.

The Verplank dock on Muskegon Lake has adequate inventory of gravel and other aggregate materials at its site, and has other storage sites in Ferrysburg and Holland to draw on, if necessary, said Nathan Gates, its sales and logistics manager.

"It's a little too early to tell how the timing's going to go until we know who the contractor is," he said, citing such variables as contractor location and whether hydraulic dredging or the slower mechanical dredging method is to be used, and of course, weather.

He added that safe shipping could resume sooner if the contractor first dredged a middle channel for ships to pass through and then worked on the areas on either side. Verplank said he saw a ship turn back with a load of salt in January due to shallow water in the outer harbor.

The LaFarge Corp. in Muskegon is expecting a load of cement the week of March 24. It will be arriving on a tug-propelled barge, and water depth is not expected to be a problem.

Under a separate contract, The King Co. of Holland is expected to address shallow-water areas in the Holland harbor entrance soon, possibly as early as this week, O'Bryan said, although that also will depend on weather conditions.

After about two weeks on the job in Holland, King will proceed to Grand Haven to address shoaling that caused one grounding at that harbor's entrance last year.
Besides a buildup of sand and silt in some areas, recent ship groundings have also been attributed to lake levels that have approached record lows.

However, above-average precipitation this winter, plus extensive ice cover to retard evaporation of lake water, have led hydrologists to predict Lake Michigan this summer will be at least six inches above its record low set in 1964.

Another positive sign: Lake Superior's water level last month was 8 inches higher than in February 2007, and could go 7-15 inches higher than last year's levels through August. However, that would still be 10 inches below normal.
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