According to a report from the Department of Homeland Security – obtained by the Freep through the Freedom of Information Act – a failure at the larger Poe Lock could halt shipping for six months. That'd plunge the nation into a recession that'd make 2009 look like a picnic. Up to 11 million jobs would be lost, as the auto and appliance industries and their suppliers shut down for the better part of a year. Work at mines, refineries, and foundries would also be halted. It would, in no uncertain terms, be a catastrophe. Even a smaller, shorter closure in the first three months of the year could stop 75 percent of the US' steel production for anywhere from two to six weeks. And while it's easy to focus on the impact of a failure while the locks are shut, the reality is that the catastrophe would last well beyond the time they began operating again, as mines, mills, and factories struggle to get back up to speed.
Here's the particularly worrying thing about this scenario, though. As far as shipping iron ore goes, water is the most efficient method. Each thousand-foot-long ore ship, of which there are 13 sailing the Great Lakes, can move 70,000 tons of iron ore on each trip. Road and rail simply can't come close to matching that volume. According to CSX Transport, a 55-to-65-foot hopper car, the largest it operates, can only manage 100 to 110 tons of ore – assuming each car moves 105 tons and is 60 feet long, it'd take a train 7.6 miles long (not counting the engines) made up of 666 cars to match the capacity of a single thousand-foot ore ship.
But how likely is a failure of the locks? Worryingly, it sounds quite good. The Poe Lock is 48 years old and while the US Army Corps of Engineers, which operates and maintains the locks, has worked to keep them updated, the Freep reports that they're in need of major upgrades.
"As the lock ages, the probabilities of failure increase," a Corps of Engineer spokesman told the Freep.
Combine that with an increase in delays and temporary closures over the past several years and the language within the report – the locks are "the Achilles' heel of the North American industrial economy" is a particular highlight – paints a grim picture of the state of the Soo.