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Deep-water port in Sault Ste. Marie will be back in business, thanks, in part, to EGLE grants

Michigan’s oldest city needed help. The seawall at the old Union Carbide Dock in Sault Ste. Marie was failing. It started with sink holes in the dock in the late 1990s. At first it was manageable. But when the city commissioned a full structural report in 2016 the gravity of the situation was apparent. The report found 57% of the front row piles were ruined. The wave and ice action on the St. Mary’s River had exposed the piles to air beneath the dock, causing them to rot. “No amount of vertical or horizontal load can be safely sustained by the concrete portion of the dock,” the report said.

Broken Carbide dock on St. Mary's River in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.

Broken Carbide dock on St. Mary's River in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. 


For as simple as the declaration was, the solution would be anything but. The city was looking at tens of millions of dollars in repairs, money it did not have. With the report showing the concrete seawall and piles weren’t even safe for pedestrian loading, the city had no choice but to close the dock and adjoining James A. Alford Waterfront Park while it tried to figure out the funding. The U.S. Coast Guard put further safety restrictions on the site.

The dock itself was only part of the problem. The property was contaminated from years of use. Union Carbide used the site for manufacturing calcium carbide from the 1890s to the 1960s before demolishing the buildings and transferring the property to the city in 1967. Pipelines carried petroleum from the dock to bulk storage areas from 1961-1987. Investigations found petroleum compounds and metals in the soil. With remediation and repair costs projected in the tens of millions the city looked to every level of government for help.

“We asked every agency that we thought had a fit,” said Sault Ste. Marie City Engineer David S. Boyle. The city wasn’t going into meetings empty-handed. “Recent transportation studies have shown that a functioning Carbide Dock is critical to the Michigan Department of Transportation Freight Plan as well as overall commerce of the state of Michigan,” Boyle told MI Environment. Selling the state and federal governments on the redevelopment plan wouldn’t be a quick process but it would pay off.

Funding started pouring in. EGLE awarded the project a $1 million Brownfield Redevelopment Grant to deal with the contaminated soil and the remaining foundations and underground infrastructure. EGLE also provided a $2.2 million Shore Power Grant to help reduce emissions from boats and ships docking at the port. The biggest chunk of money was a $20.7 million U.S. Department of Transportation U.S. Maritime Administration Department “BUILD” grant. The State Legislature passed a $5 million budget appropriation. MDOT, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources each put more than $1 million into the project. The city of Sault Ste. Marie got some skin in the game with a $1.2 million appropriation from its American Rescue Plan funding.

The results will be tangible. The dock will have an improved seawall, mooring capabilities, and bulk storage area. The public will be able to enjoy cleaner green space, a boardwalk, and public access to the river. The Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians says their community will benefit from the redevelopment by reopening their primary fishing grounds after eight years. The Carbide Dock redevelopment is walking distance from downtown Sault Ste. Marie and will connect seamlessly with the Carbide Slip Dock and the Lake Superior State University Center for Freshwater Research and Education (another brownfield redevelopment project EGLE assisted with).

The city also expects an economic boost out of all of this. City Engineer David Boyle says the dock will be able to accommodate everything from pleasure craft to 1,000-foot bulk freighters. The city is reconstructing the roads to and from the dock to make for easier distribution of bulk commodities and miscellaneous freight. The area has already gotten 51 cruise ships at a temporary location so far this year and Boyle expects even more when the new Carbide Dock is complete. The reopened park and bus parking spaces will make it a more attractive place to stop. The dock will be available for vessel maintenance, refueling, and wastewater dumping. The city expects it to draw nearly $35 million in capital investment and create up to 30 full-time job equivalents.

All of that is why this project has been a priority for the city for so long. “The dock has been talked about for decades and is a critical part of the Sault and our waterway,” said Boyle. “Looking forward to having a working port again and everyone is anxious to get back to fishing and enjoying our waterfront.” And after such a long wait, they’re only a few months away from it being finished in summer 2024.