BY ALEX BINKLEY, Despite the supply chain and other pandemic-related disruptions that hit the transportation sector last year, Great Lakes ports found a lot to be positive about in the traffic they received through a challenging year. And there are strong hopes that plans for at least 37 cruise ship voyages on the Lakes this summer could boost the ports as well.

While attention focused on the largest ports of Hamilton-Oshawa (HOPA) and Thunder Bay, smaller ports like Valleyfield at the eastern end of the system, and Toronto in the middle, saw promising increases in traffic and reasons to be optimistic about the prospects for better results in 2022.

Thunder Bay, Windsor and Johnstown saw declines in traffic.

HOPA reported a 600,000 tonne increase while Toronto handled a four per cent increase, and Valleyfield accomplished its best-ever results with 891,000 tonnes. Thunder Bay’s traffic was down six per cent below its five- year average mainly because of a hefty drop in grain exports caused by the Prairie drought last summer. Windsor’s traffic slipped by six per cent to 4.25 million tonnes while Port of Johnstown saw a 65,000 decline tonne decline, mostly in salt shipments. It did record a 235,000 tonne increase in exports of grains grown in Eastern Ontario.

HOPA said Hamilton said it continues to see a steady rise in the growth of agriculture-related commodities, driven by increases in wheat, corn, fertilizer and a 91 per cent increase in raw sugar imports as well as gains in petroleum, sand, quartz, slag and finished steel for the transportation and construction sectors. Overseas cargo tonnagesincreased 35 per cent, and Hamilton’s rail cargo has also doubled over the last five years. Oshawa saw increases in fertilizer and finished steel last year.

Thunder Bay said the gains it achieved in other products and commodities during 2021, combined with a return to normal grain production on the Prairies would put the port in a good position. CEO Tim Heney said the Port’s efforts to diversify its business are paying off. Keefer Terminal cargo volumes doubled in 2021 led by shipments of steel products and phosphate fertilizer making the most significant gains. He credited Logistec Stevedoring with helping grow the Terminal’s business. “Success in transporting general cargo, particularly valuable dimensional pieces, depends on safe and secure handling. Reliability of the operation is critical.” He also said that increased inbound shipments boosts the port’s competitiveness by ensuring that ships have cargo for the outbound voyage, which reduces the overall cost and environmental impact of shipping.

Jean-Philippe Paquin, General Manager of Port of Valleyfield, said steel traffic was up in 2021 and salt shipments will likely rise this year after the snowy and cold winter. His port has plenty of space for new business and can take additional liquid and dry bulk traffic. While the port can handle container traffic, being as close to the container terminals of the port of Montreal makes it hard to attract that business. However, the Cleveland Europe Express and the growing container operation between Hamilton and Montreal auger well for that business, he said. While moving containers by vessel on the Great Lakes would reduce transit times, “it’s hard to get shippers to switch,” he said.

Port of Windsor is aiming to develop container handling and RoRo facilities by 2023 to diversify its cargo base, says CEO Steve Salmons. The port is handling materials for local highway construction and the $6 billion Gordie Howe International Bridge and expects to have additional salt available for shipments. Sterling Fuels of Windsor is offering 100 per cent biodiesel, which could be in brisk demand to lower greenhouse gas emissions, he said.

Much of Port of Toronto’s traffic were shipments of products intended for construction projects in the Greater Toronto Area, including cement and steel imports reaching 19 and 18-year highs respectively. Aggregate tonnage more than doubled year-over-year and imports of sugar from Central and South America reached 572,683 tonnes. Container shipments increased by 15 per cent.

During 2021, HOPA announced its expansion into the Niagara Region through the Niagara Ports plan involving properties in Thorold and along the Welland Canal. HOPA also completed modernization projects in Hamilton and is working on food- grade warehousing and new storage space for sugar and grain. Hamilton Container Terminal launched a container feeder service from Hamilton to Montreal and plans to boost the number of shipments this year. Ian Hamilton, President and CEO of HOPA Ports said that by continuing to invest in critical infrastructure, “we can support Canada’s domestic capacity and trade potential, and push for better outcomes in 2022.”