Coal becoming important export from Duluth-Superior

Minnesota State Roundup

Published October 1, 1991  | October 1991 issue

Coal is gaining prominence at Duluth-Superior, historically an iron ore port, because of the increasing passage of coal to the eastern United States and Canada.

The low-sulfur coal, which is mined in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana, is transported by train to Duluth and exported by ship through the Great Lakes and up the St. Lawrence Seaway.

Stricter air pollution standards have compelled many utility companies to either burn cleaner coal or better filter their emissions. Powder River coal contains 0.003 percent sulphur, whereas coal from Appalachia contains 5 percent or more. As utilities opt for cleaner coal, more coal passes through Duluth-Superior.

In 1990, the 11 million metric tons of coal exported from Duluth constituted almost a third of the total exports, up from 11 percent in 1981. By comparison, nearly 19 million metric tons of iron ore and taconite were shipped, or 51 percent of the total, down from 67 percent in 1981.

"The bulk of the coal goes to the Detroit Edison power plant," says Ray Skelton, special projects director at the Seaport Authority of Duluth. Some of the coal is shipped to the Lake Michigan area and Canada.

In addition to the domestic and Canadian markets, the first overseas coal cargo left for Spain in August. "This is a test shipment," Skelton says. "We're not sure of the advantages and disadvantages." More European shipments may be forthcoming, he adds.

The only coal terminal in the Duluth port is owned by Midwest Energy Resource Co. and has a capacity of 12.2 million metric tons per year. It is unlikely, says Skelton, that iron ore terminals in the port would be converted to coal terminals because of the substantial differences in handling between coal and ore.

As markets and capacity expand, Duluth may become one of the nation's largest coal exporters.

Nettie Pignatello