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Great Lakes shipping up sharply

Shipments of bulk cargo such as iron ore on the Great Lakes jumped by one-third last year, a hopeful sign for a region battered by the recession, an industry spokesman said Wednesday.

The Lake Carriers Association credited a gradually healing economy for the increase in waterborne transport of coal, limestone, sand and other raw materials. But the dramatic statistical improvement in 2010 also reflects the industry's dismal showing the previous year.

"We obviously have a ways to go," said Glen Nekvasil, spokesman for the association, which represents 18 companies that operate 55 U.S.-flagged vessels on the Great Lakes.

The ships hauled 88.7 million tons of dry bulk freight last year, up from 66.5 million tons in 2009, an increase of 33.4 percent.

The biggest improvement was in iron ore for the steel industry, which shot up 75 percent -- from 24 million tons in 2009 to 42 million tons last year.

"The steel industry is still a very important barometer of our economic health," Nekvasil said. "It's the basic material of so many things in our life -- autos, refrigerators, washing machines, the frames of office buildings and malls."

Despite the uptick, overall cargo tonnage for 2010 was about 10 percent below the average for the previous five years. Bulk shipment totals regularly exceeded 100 million tons annually before plunging in 2009, when iron ore transport hit its lowest level since 1938.

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