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Shipping halted as freighter remains aground in Detroit River

A freighter ran aground early Wednesday in the lower Detroit River near Grosse Ile causing a vessel attempting to avoid it to hit bottom and a logjam for other ships rushing to move cargo ahead of the close of the shipping season.

The Harvest Spirit, carrying about 74,000 gallons of diesel fuel and 9,000-10,000 metric tons of furnace coke, experienced engine failure in the river's Livingstone Channel and ran aground, said Lauren Solski, a spokeswoman with the Canadian Coast Guard, in an email.

As a result, the Canadian Coast Guard's Marine Communications and Traffic Services in Sarnia began directing vessels to transit only down the shallower Amherstburg Channel — if operators felt it was safe, she said.

The first vessel to attempt the transit, the cargo ship Gardno, touched bottom while trying to avoid the Harvest Spirit. The Gardno anchored at Colchester in Ontario to assess potential damage, Solski said.

Several tug boats were seen assisting the Harvest Spirit at dusk. But before 7 p.m., Solski said "operations have stopped for safety and will resume when it is light again."

Earlier, a navigational warning was issued to all vessels in the area to anchor or make alternative arrangements until the area is cleared.

"Any vessel wanting to transit the affected area will be cleared on a case-by-case basis by the Canadian Coast Guard," said Solski, adding the Canadian Coast Guard's environmental response team is on the scene.

For larger ships packed with cargo, the Amherstburg Channel isn't an option, said Eric Peace, director of operations and communications for the Ohio-based Lake Carriers Association.

"There is no other route," Peace said. "The Livingston Channel is for (loaded) downbound vessels."

The hold-up, Peace said, threatens efforts to transport goods, such as iron ore used by the auto industry, ahead of the January closure of the Soo Locks.

"We're toward the end of our season and trying to get as much as we can shipped," he said. "We're trying to stockpile and get as much as we can to them before the locks close."

Peace said several 1,000-foot vessels carrying 70,000 tons of iron ore that the association represents were waiting to get through to transport the material to southern blast furnaces that turn it into steel for the auto industry. Other Canadian ships carrying grain and wheat were also held up.

Peace noted it's critical to the national economy that the Great Lakes are able to move bulk cargo during the nine-month season.

The association, based on an analysis of slowdowns from inadequate ice breaking on the lakes between 2013 and 2014, in 2015 and 2018, resulted in an estimated loss of about $2 billion and 10,000 jobs, he said.

Peace said severe storms and ice are on the way and "everything is going to slow us down toward the end of the year."

Delays here, he said, will result in delays in the transporting system in the days ahead.

"Depending on how long it takes to get the vessel out of there, it might impact the entire system," he said. "The Great Lakes are like a highway. When the highway gets stopped, it trickles backwards."

The Canadian Coast Guard took the lead for responding to Wednesday's situation since the vessel sails under a Canadian flag and is mostly in Canadian waters. The agency is keeping officials with its U.S. counterpart abreast of efforts to free the freighter.

U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Jeremiah Schiessel said the service received reports of the Harvest Spirit running aground at about 6:40 a.m. Wednesday.

"They apparently experienced some sort of lube oil failure and starting drifting," he said. "Basically, they lost propulsion. Now they're sideways in the channel and completely blocking the channel."

Schiessel also said the Harvest Spirit's captain reported the ship had not released any pollution into the water. Officials said the freighter's crew plans to repair the ship's lube oil pump while it's aground.

Schiessel said the ship's crew and officials already have a salvage plan in place.

"There's a salvage plan and tugs are underway to help pull them off," he said. "Once they're off, they plan to anchor and send divers down to assess any possible damage that happened. Hopefully, there won't be any."

The Harvest Spirit is a recent acquisition by McKeil, a Canadian marine service company that provides transportation throughout the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway, East Coast and in the Canadian Arctic.

The ship was built in 2012, according to the company, and was brought over from dry-dock in Europe.

On Tuesday, the Harvest Spirit made her first visit to Detroit, according to shipping news site, and loaded the coke on Zug Island.

This article originally appeared on The Detroit News

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