By Keith Norbury

The race is on to build ocean terminals on B.C.’s north coast to handle breakbulk and project cargo for existing and proposed energy projects in Alberta and northern B.C. Construction of a $35 million to $40 million terminal at Stewart, on the border of the Alaska panhandle, began in August. That was barely two months after the CEO of Prince Rupert Port Authority announced funding for a $10 million breakbulk terminal near that port’s Ridley Island grain facility. Meanwhile, a proposal for a breakbulk terminal at Kitimat – the epicentre of a dozen proposed energy projects including pipelines and refineries – is as far from reality as it was two years ago.

Stewart terminal work starts “nicely”

Work on Stewart World Port Inc.’s breakbulk terminal – the second of three phases of the port – kicked off in mid August when a vessel unloaded 2,400 tonnes of pipe that will be used to build pilings for the dock, said Ted Pickell, the Port’s CEO. “We are starting nicely,” Mr. Pickell said in late August, adding that “we’re just happier than hell at this point.”

The project was about three weeks behind schedule because of delays in bringing in the materials. However, Mr. Pickell said he is confident that work on the terminal will be completed by next spring. “We secured all the barge equipment,” he said. “All the concrete deck is loaded.” He expects the deck to be transported in late August. Piling driving is to start no later that Sept. 10, he said. Another load of piling pipe of about 1,200 tonnes will arrive in October.

Prince Rupert announces investment

This June, Don Krusel, President and CEO of Prince Rupert Port Authority, announced at the Authority’s annual public meeting that the Board of Directors had approved a $10 million investment to relocate a roll-on roll-off ramp. The area around the relocated structure would be fixed up to create a gateway for bulk, breakbulk and project cargo. “We already have a customer in line to initiate that,” Mr. Krusel was quoted in the Northern View newspaper. “We expect that to be ready the first quarter of next year.”

Michael Gurney, Manager of Corporate Communications with Prince Rupert Port Authority, told Canadian Sailings that the announcement was unplanned but also fortuitous. “It’s because an individual at the public meeting asked specifically about this, and our CEO felt it was a propitious time to mention that this decision had just been made,” Mr. Gurney said. The ro-ro ramp, which had been used prior to the creation of the Fairview Container Terminal in 2007, has “been sitting largely unused for the last five or six years,” Mr. Gurney said. The ramp actually sank earlier this year and has since been towed to another location where it is being refurbished.

Calling it a ro-ro ramp is a misnomer that refers to its former function, which was to provide for offloading of project cargo related to the Fairview conversion from a breakbulk terminal to a container terminal, Mr. Gurney said. Prince Rupert hasn’t had a breakbulk terminal since the container terminal was built. “So we really should stop referring to it as a ro-ro ramp,” Mr. Gurney said. It is being re-fabricated for a new function “to allow for trucks and heavy machinery to transit to barges and then lift up the equipment and remove it to the roadway,” Mr. Gurney said. “I think the concept is to have it be more of a barge landing area,” he said.

Minimal environmental disturbance expected

Tenders on the contract have been called and the contractor chosen but an announcement had yet to be made by press time. What Mr. Gurney could share is that the capacity of the facility is estimated at about 700,000 tonnes annually. It would be able to accommodate “a decent sized barge” of 7,000 to 10,000 tonnes at low water. “Aside from the ramp refurbishment, there’s the marine structure that will anchor it,” Mr. Gurney said. “The former pontoons on the ro-ro ramp itself have been removed, so it requires more robust stabilization.”

The project also requires power connections, new power poles, underground power-supply cables, step-down transformers, and electrical panels, and light fixtures – all with waterproof enclosures – as well as hydraulics on the ramp and rip-rap and fill to level the site, he said. And steel bridges will have to be installed “to provide access to the existing roadway because right now there’s just a brownfield site out to that little peninsula.” Construction, however, is expected to cause minimal disturbance to the intertidal zone. Consequently, the project won’t trigger a full environmental assessment, he said.

The facility will be built in almost the identical location as a proposed Rupert Break Bulk project that was led by Capt. Peter Jaskiewicz, a marine transportation consultant who was formerly the CEO of Fraser Surrey Docks near Vancouver. That proposal died last year after Capt. Jaskiewicz’s group was unable to negotiate a lease with the Port Authority for the project. However, in an interview, he indicated that he harbours no hard feelings. “I think it’s good that the Port Authority is doing something,” Capt. Jaskiewicz said. “All I’m thinking of is that Prince Rupert needs breakbulk and the Port Authority is going to do it. I think it’s great.”

“Capacity is good”

Ron Brinkhurst, President of Tidal Transport & Trading Ltd., also applauded the Port Authority’s initiative even though it will likely mean altering his plans for a breakbulk barge terminal at the company’s 54-acre former sawmill site and 38-acre water lease at Prince Rupert’s Butze Bay. “First of all, capacity is good,” Mr. Brinkhurst said, adding that “I think that it’s going to be a very important capacity improvement for the port.” Should the port install a barge ramp, however, Tidal wouldn’t include a barge ramp as originally proposed for its facility. “So we would be a direct lift off the barge,” Mr. Brinkhurst said. (However, Mr. Gurney said that the ro-ro ramp would no longer function as a ramp but instead as a barge landing area. So Mr. Brinkhurst might wish to revisit his plans after details of the Port’s terminal are revealed.) In any event, Mr. Brinkhurst called the Port’s proposal “a fantastic announcement” of which his company is “super supportive.”

So far at least, progress on Tidal’s breakbulk terminal has been stymied because it is “cargo challenged.” To date, Tidal has only been able to attract one shipment of project cargo and another of pipe. But that’s about what Mr. Brinkhurst said he had expected. Tidal’s site is still handling logs, stuffing about 400 to 500 containers each month. And it’s continuing to improve the site, including plans for more dredging, which is awaiting a Ministry of Environment permit.

Another barge terminal also waiting

Another company, Amix Marine Services Ltd., a division of Amix Marine Group, has also proposed a breakbulk barge terminal at Prince Rupert, on a 20-acre property adjacent to Tidal’s. Amix President Clarke Longmuir said most of the work on the $1.5 million facility, such as its floating dock and moorage and onshore structures, are complete. However, the company is holding off on final installation, probably until later this fall. “We don’t have specific breakbulk business yet,” Mr. Longmuir said. “But we have some things that are kind of in the loop.” He admitted that the Port of Prince Rupert’s decision to build its own breakbulk facility could affect the plans for his facility. Then again, he said, his company focuses more on barging of smaller-scale cargoes like wood chips, logs, and aggregates as opposed to “the overseas shipping and larger project type stuff” that the port will likely handle.

Amix will also do ship lightering – from ship to barge to shore – “If somebody has 5,000 tonnes of steel, like pipe or beams, and they want to take it from a ship onto shore instead of having to go to the docks,” Mr. Longmuir said.

Aside from some grading and paving of the site, Amix has a temporary barge-loading stacker system that needs to be replaced by larger permanent platform. It consists of a former log barge converted into a floating dock that includes an engineered ramp. “We’re just waiting for an opportune time to finish everything,” Mr. Longmuir said, adding that “if somebody has a project where they specifically need a site like the one we offer, we can be up and running within a month.” He said he has had lots of talks with people about potential business, and he expects to see some activity in the near future. “I just don’t know exactly when it’s going to be yet,” said Mr. Longmuir, whose company has leased a pair of barges to the general contractor working on the Stewart breakbulk terminal.

Stewart terminal designed for Panamax

Mr. Pickell is also the owner of that company, Arctic Construction, a 61-year-old firm based in Fort St. John, B.C. “We will be subbing out the pile driving and that is the only thing we’re going to sub out,” Mr. Pickell said. By this spring, Mr. Pickell is optimistic his new terminal will be up and running – and busy. “We will have all manner of cargo coming in and out,” Mr. Pickell said. He hopes to handle pipe for the various liquified natural gas projects and pipelines proposed for northeastern B.C., as well as logs, mining equipment, and modules for the Alberta oil patch.

At present, an existing facility at Stewart can handle barges, but once the new facility is complete next spring, it will accommodate ocean-going ships. “The shallowest end of our wharf is 25 metres at low tide, and the outer end, the wharf is 40 metres,” Mr. Pickell said. The wharf itself will be 220 metres long and 20 metres wide and is designed to handle Handymax or Panamax vessels. The dock can also be lengthened in order to accommodate Capesize vessels or berth two ships at a time. “We can put a small one on the inside right now, like a smaller Handymax, and, say, a Panamax on the outside,” he said.

The terminal will be equipped with a Manitowoc 555 crawler crane, although the dock is also designed for a rubber-tired crane. A 60-tonne Grove rough-terrain crane is also on the site, along with about 30 other pieces of equipment, Mr. Pickell said.

Is all this effort and expense going to pay off? “Obviously we’re not spending our own money doing this if we think it’s not going to work,” Mr. Pickell said. “I’ve been in the construction business all my life and I’ve got lots of grey hairs. So you figure it out.”

LNG dreams drive terminal projects

With so many breakbulk projects in the works for north coastal B.C., will there be enough cargo to go around? “With the volume or the projected volume of cargo that we’re potentially looking at arriving on our shores, you need all the capacity that you can have,” said Gary Kolesniak, Director of Policy for the B.C. Trucking Association. “That’s what it all comes down to.”

Among the drivers behind the rush to build breakbulk terminals on the north coast of B.C. is an expected energy boom in B.C. They include two massive liquified natural gas projects to move natural gas by pipeline from northern B.C. to liquefaction terminals in Kitimat, which is at the head of Douglas Channel about 200 kilometres by meandering road southeast of Prince Rupert. “Prince Rupert is the backdoor of the LNG projects, and much will be landing there for those projects,” said Doug Mills, Senior Account representative for bulk and breakbulk cargo for Port Metro Vancouver. “So they have to develop a breakbulk port.”

At the Crane Rental Association of Canada’s annual conference in Whistler, B.C., this June, Rose Klukas, Kitimat’s Economic Development officer, revealed that 600 people were already working on a greenfield site for Kitimat LNG. However, since then one of the partners in project, Apache Canada, has announced it will sell its stake, and has left the other partner, Chevron Canada, looking for a new partner. Even before that announcement, reports had emerged that Kitimat LNG wasn’t able to secure long-term contracts at a profitable rate from Asian buyers. That led commentators like the Vancouver Sun’s Vaughn Palmer to wonder if the window of opportunity for B.C. LNG might be closing.

Those building breakbulk terminals in that part of the world aren’t so pessimistic about the future of LNG. In Kitimat, however, LNG operators are expected to use private terminals, Klukas said in an interview. For example, Shell Canada, which is a partner in LNG Canada, recently acquired a terminal from Rio Tinto Alcan, which has its own terminal at its Kitimat aluminium smelter. “That’s how it works at this point in time but we do see that there could be a market for general breakbulk and we’ll look to develop that opportunity as other projects unfold here,” Ms. Klukas said. Kitimat Mayor Joanne Monahan said several parties have expressed an interest in building a public breakbulk terminal at Kitimat “but so far nothing has transpired at our end.”

As far as Prince Rupert is concerned, Mr. Gurney said its new terminal will look to “serve industries that are advancing energy projects throughout western Canada.” Those include a proposal by Malaysia-based Petronas Group for an LNG liquefaction terminal at Prince Rupert’s Lelu Island as well as a proposed expansion of Fairview terminal. “Certainly we seem to have enough interest in this project to proceed,” Mr. Gurney said. “There’s enough happening or will be happening at the port of Prince Rupert to merit having this kind of facility.”