Run aground by regulators, Duluth 'saltie' just wants to go home

The ocean-going vessel Cornelia
The ocean-going vessel Cornelia has been anchored outside the Duluth harbor since early November, as the U.S. Coast Guard investigates alleged environmental violations involving the discharge of oily water.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

When the Cornelia arrived in Duluth harbor to load grain in early November, the Rev. Doug Paulson offered his usual local hospitality, taking the international crew shopping for warm clothes and helping them contact loved ones around the globe.

They waved goodbye shortly after. Paulson, director of the Twin Ports Ministry to Seafarers, expected to watch them sail toward the eastern horizon and home.

"We had no idea at that point that they were going to go to anchor out at the lake," he said. "That's where they have been ever since."

The Cornelia has been stuck for a month outside the harbor, forced to stop its journey while the U.S. Coast Guard investigates alleged environmental violations involving the discharge of oily water.

The Coast Guard has been mum on details, only saying the discharge did not occur in the Duluth-Superior port. The U.S. Attorney's Office for Minnesota has been investigating the case since Nov. 9.

Those in charge of the ship have become increasingly anxious about its fate. Salties don't make money standing still and the coming winter threatens to keep the ship from escaping to the open ocean.

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"It's been so frustrating that it's almost numbing. I can't put it in words, it's really an operational nightmare," said Steve Sydow, an agent for Daniel's Shipping Services in Duluth. He was hired by the Canadian shipping company FedNav to manage the ship's operations while in port.

"We're annoying people on three different continents here," he said. "So this is a big deal for us."

The Cornelia is registered in Liberia, and owned by a German company. FedNav, the Canadian company, chartered the ship to carry wheat from Duluth to the Mediterranean Sea, where it will be milled into pasta or couscous.

The investigation has taken so long because of all those parties involved, said Adele Yorde with the Duluth Seaway Port Authority.

"When you bring that many agencies and federal governments together and international maritime law to be considered, it really has gone I think as speedily as possible," she said.

Still, Yorde concedes the ship's owners are paying a price. "From the folks that own the vessel, to the operators, to the people waiting for the cargo, to the folks that did that charter ... there will be significant financial loss across the board."

As for the 19 crew members who, for security reasons, aren't allowed to leave the ship, Yorde says while they would prefer to be moving, they're doing well.

"They're not abandoned, they're not cold, they're doing fine," Yorde said, "The captain told me yesterday in an email that he's got at least 40 days' worth of provisions."

The Coast Guard says it's negotiating a security agreement with the ship's owner and operator that would allow the Cornelia to leave Duluth while the investigation continues. That needs to happen by Dec. 20. That's when the last saltie typically leaves Duluth before the St. Lawrence Seaway closes for the winter.

Officials realize that window is closing "so it is on our radar but right now there is no timeline," said Christopher Yaw, a spokesman for the Coast Guard in Cleveland.

For the past month the Cornelia has become something of a fixture in Duluth, its yellow cranes rising out of the morning fog on Lake Superior. But as the port authority's Yorde put it, "the life of a seafarer is a lot more exciting when you're moving."