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Great Lakes steamers thrown a lifeline

Some of the oldest and most storied vessels on the Great Lakes were granted a reprieve Tuesday evening.

Sen. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., and Dave Obey, D-Wis., say they have brokered a compromise with the Environmental Protection Agency that would exempt Great Lakes steamships from new rules that could have sidelined them or forced expensive overhauls.

The EPA had proposed a rule requiring all ships operating on the Great Lakes to burn low-sulfur marine diesel fuel, a change that the agency said could prevent tens of thousands of premature deaths. But it would have required that

13 older steam-engine ships in the U.S.-flagged fleet be repowered at an estimated cost of about $22 million per vessel.

The Great Lakes Carriers' Association warned that the steamers, including iconic old boats such as the Edward L. Ryerson and the Kaye E. Barker, could be forced into retirement as a result.

The compromise announced Tuesday allows active steamships to continue operating under a grandfather clause.

The EPA also will provide a waiver to certain diesel-engine lakers that can demonstrate a serious economic hardship. Saltwater vessels calling on the Great Lakes still would be required to use low-sulfur fuel.

Some of the older, smaller vessels in the U.S. fleet play a key role in keeping workers busy at Midwest Energy Resources Co.'s coal terminal in Superior -- the largest facility of its kind on the Great Lakes.

"Not all our customers have the capacity to receive 1,000-footers," said Fred Shusterich, Midwest's president. "You need the right tool for the right customer."

The 13 steamships represent 20 percent of the U.S. laker fleet, and while many of them are designed to handle smaller cargo loads of 20,000 to 25,000 tons, Jim Sharrow, facilities manager for the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, said: "They serve a very active market in the stone and coal trades."

As of Tuesday night, Sharrow had yet to see the EPA agreement but said he welcomed "what sounds like a lifeline for the steamers."

Jennifer Nalbone, a campaign director for Great Lakes United, an environmental advocacy group, said she wishes the EPA would have maintained a harder line.

"In a nutshell, the reason why these ships need to be regulated is because they're operating in close proximity to people all the time," she said. "To exempt vessels whose emissions are always polluting our Great Lakes cities and affecting our citizens is very disappointing."

The EPA projected that requiring all ships to burn only low-sulfur marine diesel fuels when within 200 miles of any city could prevent 13,000 to 34,000 premature deaths a year by 2030.

Lake carriers argue that retiring the old steamers would just push more cargo to trucks and trains, which burn more fuel and produce more emissions per ton of cargo than lakers do.