The Netherlands-flagged Avonborg passes through locks on the St. Lawrence Seaway Tuesday Mar. 22, 2011. The ship, carrying parts for windmills, is the first to enter the seaway this season and is scheduled to arrive at the Port of Indiana in Burns Harbor early next week. | Photo Courtesy Ports of Indiana

The Netherlands-flagged Avonborg passes through locks on the St. Lawrence Seaway Tuesday Mar. 22, 2011. The ship, carrying parts for windmills, is the first to enter the seaway this season and is scheduled to arrive at the Port of Indiana in Burns Harbor early next week. | Photo Courtesy Ports of Indiana

BURNS HARBOR — The St. Lawrence Seaway opened its 53rd season Tuesday when the first ship entered St. Lambert Lock, Quebec, from the Atlantic Ocean.

Its destination: the Port of Indiana-Burns Harbor, 1,316 miles.

Its cargo: 75 wind turbine blades, each 161 feet long, a total of 647 metric tons.

Its estimated time of arrival: March 28.

Its ultimate destination: Horizon Wind Energy’s Timber Road project in Payne, Ohio.

The 12,000-ton vessel, the Avonborg, loaded up with the blades in Denmark, marks the beginning of what port officials hope will signal an economic turnaround.

“We’re optimistic about the season,” said Jody Peacock, director of corporate affairs, Ports of Indiana.

“It’s been a tough time for a lot of us over the last couple of years,” Peacock said. “Last year was an improvement over the previous year, and we’re hoping to see things continue to build momentum.

The ports saw a huge increase in project cargo in 2010, said Peacock, who noted that more than 100 ships come and go to the port each year. “We handled 43 percent more cargo than in 2009 overall,” he said. “We shipped 14 times more project cargo that the previous year.”

A large part of that was made up of windmill components and building-size storage tanks. Shipments of windmill parts have been escalating for three years.

“Last year was our biggest year for windmill components,” he said. “We expect more this year.”

In fact, two more ships carrying 75 and 36 blades respectively are expected soon after the March 28 shipment arrives.

One of the largest single pieces ever to move through the port came through in 2010, Peacock said. A 388-ton transformer was shipped from Spain to the LaSalle County generating station that supplies electricity to Chicago and northern Illinois.

An impact study released last year by maritime economic impact analyst Martin Associates found the total value of economic activity at the Port of Indiana-Burns Harbor was $3.5 billion a year, Peacock said.

“That was during an economic downturn, so that’s a conservative number,” Peacock said.

Exports include “a lot” of grain from local farmers, from within a 100-mile radius, mostly corn, wheat and soybeans heading to countries such as China, South America, Europe and Africa.

Last year the worldwide demand for local grain drove up agriculture shipments for outbound grain and inbound fertilizer, Peacock said.

Steel shipments are also up due to the recovering manufacturing sector, he said. Steel is both imported and exported.

“A lot of companies are processors,” Peacock said. “They take in one component of steel and send out another component.”

Andrew Bogora, spokesman for the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp., which oversees the seaway, said predictions show cargo shipments would rise by 7 percent to 39.1 million tons this year.

Stephen Wilkes, senior executive with Tata Steel, which has operations in Ohio, Indiana and Ontario said marine transportation plays a key role for the steel industry.

“We need to work together to ensure that all stakeholders recognize the importance of the Great Lakes Seaway System’s role in supporting hundreds of thousands of jobs,” Wilkes said.

Collister Johnson Jr., administrator of the U.S. Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corp., said marine mode is the most energy-efficient mode of transportation, lessening the country’s dependence on foreign oil.

In the case of the Burns Harbor-bound turbine blades, Bogora said, “that represents 75 fewer trucks on the highways.”

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