By Keith Norbury, The port of Port Alberni on the west side of Vancouver Island is working with forestry company San Group to take over stevedoring operations at the port’s Berth 3. “San Group is in the process of setting up the operation,” Zoran Knezevic, CEO of Port Alberni Port Authority, said in February. “They are brand new in the terminal operations. So they’re gathering all the right expertise and the right people, setting it up.” Mr. Knezevic said the project, called Santerm, is “progressing but maybe not as fast as we would like.” He predicted it will “probably take six months to a year in order to be fully operational.”
A LOT OF MONEY ALREADY SPENT
Last June, Langley, B.C.-based San Group announced a multi- million-dollar agreement to ship lumber products from Berth 3 and to lease land and warehouse space. At the time, San Group said it would invest $50 million to $60 million into “shipping operations of its finished products.” San Group CEO Kamal Sanghera said in an interview in February, “We have spent a lot of money already on it.” He added that he has also been in touch with shipping lines in Europe and Eastern countries. Mr. Sanghera declined to name the carriers he has had discussions with, citing non-disclosure agreements, but he admitted they include names familiar to the industry. He also hinted that his company has been in touch with large retailer shippers such as Canadian Tire and has also met with companies that handle roll-on roll-off cargoes.
San Group already has invested about $200 million dollars in its forestry operations in the Port Alberni area, Mr. Sanghera said. They include three sawmills and a manufacturing facility. The company also has its own logging operations.
Aside from shipping San Group’s own products, Berth 3 will also handle a variety of other cargo types, including containers and breakbulk, he said. “It will be available for everybody,” Mr. Sanghera said. “This is going to be a standalone business but that will complement my own business too.” Upgrades to Berth 3 will include dockside cranes and storage silos. The lease itself covers 17 acres of land and 600 feet of berthing space as well as warehouses and buildings. “That facility never had those big cranes before,” Mr. Sanghera said.
WORKING WITH STEVEDORES
Mr. Sanghera said his company does have a background in stevedoring and is working with stevedoring companies, such as Western Stevedoring, on the Port Alberni venture. A Feb. 10 posting on San Group’s Facebook page said Santerm is now accepting “53 foot and 60 foot containers along with regular size boxes.”
“We are able to offload containers from the vessel and either truck them to the mainland or barge about 200 boxes at a time to Port Langley,” the post added. Mr. Knezevic noted that the 53-foot containers are an odd- size used for domestic transport. “However, they’re produced abroad, brought here by ships, and then sorted out and distributed throughout the province,” he said. Because the 53-footers are cumbersome, terminal operators don’t like to handle them and they charge a premium to do so, Mr. Knezevic added. “So the importers are looking for an alternative, and San is trying to provide that alternative,” Mr. Knezevic said. “But the main focus for San will be to create a facility they use to ship the goods that they produce.”
GLOBAL SHIPPING TARGETED
While San Group is also communicating with domestic stakeholders, the ultimate aim is to target global shipping, Mr. Sanghera said. He maintains that Port Alberni can have a competitive advantage both economically and environmentally. Both he and Mr. Knezevic are touting Santerm as a direct route to Asia for Vancouver Island cargoes that now often are shipped to Vancouver where they are loaded on ships that pass Port Alberni on their way to Asia.
Beneficiaries of the new terminal will include factory fishing vessels that currently unload into containers at Port Alberni that are then trucked to the mainland. Catalyst Paper could also use Port Alberni to ship its products directly to Asia. That would not only reduce the carbon emissions from the transport but reduce congestion at terminals in the Vancouver area.
“It’s beneficial on multiple levels,” Mr. Knezevic said. “And it’s really good to see an organization like San get involved to control their own future.”
FLOATING DRY DOCK
The Port Authority is also working on establishing a floating drydock in partnership with Canadian Maritime Engineering. Estimated to cost $68.8 million in October 2020, its cost has probably risen slightly, Mr. Knezevic said. The Port Authority has spearheaded a community committee “in which the sole mandate is to secure that funding to create the floating drydock,” he said. He added that the port has had an initial round of interviews with a provincial government advisory committee looking at developing a B.C. shipbuilding strategy. The drydock would be able to accommodate vessels of up to 15,000 tonnes deadweight, including Coast Guard and naval vessels as well as the entire B.C. Ferries fleet. Mr. Knezevic said he expects the provincial advisory committee to confirm its support for this project by the fall of 2022.
Canadian Maritime Engineering has bought land from the City of Port Alberni near the terminals. However, Mr. Knezevic noted that the port’s berths 1 and 2, which are aging infrastructure with a combined length of 1,050 feet, are well-suited to attach the floating drydock.
CARGO VOLUMES REBOUND
Port Alberni cargo volumes rebounded in 2021, Mr. Knezevic said. Log exports had slumped about 35 per cent in 2020 because of COVID-19 and a labour disruption at Western Forest Products. “But 2021 was really good,” he said. “We went back to our 2019 numbers, and we are up more than 50 per cent this year versus last year.” Recent activities in 2022 included three vessels — Santa Serena, New Face, and Global Ambition — calling at Berth 3 to load logs for export. A fourth vessel, which docked at Berth 1, Sunderoey, carried fish frozen at sea. Frozen fish exports increased in 2021, in part because another vessel was added to the fleet, Mr. Knezevic said. “So, for us, 2021 was actually one of the best years.”
Unlike a traditional port, however, Port Alberni doesn’t derive the bulk of its revenues from being a landlord. “We are actually quite actively involved in operating our facilities,” Mr. Knezevic said. They include five marinas, a campground and the Dock+ food hub. “Shipping actually represents less than a third of our overall revenue,” Mr. Knezevic said. “Almost half of our revenue is based on operating activities from marinas and the campground and Dock+.”
FOOD HUB TAKES OFF
Dock+ includes Alberni Ice cold storage, operated for the Port by Flurer Smokery, as well as Cascadia Seaweed, and the Kitchen, a commercial facility for processors “to refine or develop new products,” according to the Port’s website.
“The last year of operations has shown that they have served as a great point for connecting the vessels that come to offload at our fishermen’s harbour with the operators that process the food and deliver it to the end customers,” said Kate Smith, the Port Authority’s administrative operations manager. Ms. Smith said the food hub has become a “focal point” for the Port Alberni community, noting that the area has nine farms. “We are not expanding there only for seafood processing. We are expanding to help any processors with their product and get it ready for the consumers,” Ms. Smith said. In the offseason the food hub employs about 25 people but that swells to about 100 during the summer. The project received a $750,000 grant from the B.C. government, $300,000 the Island Coastal Economic Development Trust, and almost $1 million from the port itself, Mr. Knezevic said.
PATH STILL ON THE RADAR
Longer term, the Port Authority still envisions developing a Port Alberni Transshipment Hub, (PATH), a $2 billion endeavour that would handle 3.5 million containers a year. “It is still on our radar,” Mr. Knezevic said. “We are working and promoting it, not as actively as we used to, but slowly moving forward. Hopefully, we’ll be successful one day.”
He said that “to a degree” Santerm will “probably” be a test of the PATH concept, although not of the same scale. “The PATH project is geared more towards improving the handling of imports, while San Group’s focus will be to on handling exports.” Mr. Knezevic said. “So it is somewhat proof of concept, but not entirely.”
In addition to the above, the Port has other projects it will announce in the coming months, he said.