By Brian Dunn

The minute you meet Denis Lapointe, Mayor of Salaberry-de-Valleyfield, you know he has a story to tell. And that story is about how important Port of Valleyfield is to the community he has presided over since 1995.

One of the projects he’s been lobbying for since he was first elected was the removal of rail tracks from downtown Valleyfield to their present location in the industrial park near the port. He was also a strong proponent for the extension of Autoroute 30, connecting the area around Valleyfield to the east, along the south shore of the St. Lawrence across from Montreal and beyond. Montreal was the only major North American city that didn’t have a bypass around it, Mr. Lapointe mentioned during an interview in his office in the town of 45,000 inhabitants.

The tracks belonged to U.S. rail carrier CSX which inherited them when it bought Conrail who took over from New York Central, and CSX wasn’t interested in moving them until the extension of Autoroute 30 was put on the drawing board in 2008, said Mr. Lapointe. Then two years ago, CSX announced plans to build a new $100 million intermodal terminal less than five minutes from the port and adjacent to Autoroute 30 in the town’s industrial park.

When the port first opened 1967, it was to serve two clients, namely Canadian Electrolytic Zinc (Noranda) and St. Lawrence Fertilizer. The town lobbied other local companies to use the port, including Allied Chemical and Alcan in nearby Beauharnois, and PPG Industries, a leading Pittsburgh-based coatings and specialty chemicals company. “Back then, the port, owned by the City of Salaberry-de-Valleyfield, was running a deficit. Zinc arrived by train from New Brunswick, rather than through the port, and local companies felt no obligation to use the port,” said Mr. Lapointe. “But that changed with the establishment of Valport twenty years ago as the port’s logistics management team, managing all of the port’s shipping activities. Valport was more aggressive in attracting new business and put pressure on local companies to use the port. In addition, it decided to specialize in shipments to the Arctic.”

The City of Valleyfield got behind the development of the port by appointing a four person administration to oversee its growth and investing $20 million in infrastructure improvements, including a new dock and Ro-Ro operations. Another $10-$15 million was spent on warehousing and to add containerization operations to what was then only a bulk cargo port. Today, the port employs about 250 workers and has an annual operating budget of $2.5 million. “ It receives and ships all kinds of products, including steel, salt, bauxite, cacao, zinc, industrial liquids, utility vehicles, grains, foods, asphalt, industrial assemblies, and so on. The port accounts for at least $100 million in economic activity for the area each year. About 250,000 tonnes of goods arrive by train or truck and another 150,000 tonnes through the Seaway.”

Among major port users are Valtech, a manufacturer of industrial products with 150 employees that ships to the U.S., and Akzo Nobel, a global paints and coatings company and leading producer of specialty chemicals based in Amsterdam, with operations in the Montreal area. Last year, industrial road salt from Cargill began arriving by ship in Valleyfield from Cleveland for use on roads in and around Montreal. And McAsphalt barges in liquid asphalt from Hamilton, while Logistec brings in construction material through the port. Another is Nemaska Lithium, which occupies a site in the industrial park to produce next-generation lithium ion batteries for electric vehicles.

All told, there are an estimated 1,000 commercial establishments in and around Valleyfield, including 120 manufacturers and plants, including several chemical plants, Mr. Lapointe pointed out. And contrary to the notion Valleyfield competes with Port of Montreal for business, he asserted that the exact opposite applies. “Montreal mainly concentrates on containers and sometimes sends us bulk carriers if they have no space to unload them, or if the waiting time is going to be three or four days. We’re like David and Goliath,” said the mayor. “We even do business with Cornwall which sometimes sends containers to us.” The mayor scoffs at the idea that CSX’ new terminal will draw business away from Montreal. If anything, it will open up new markets for the city, he said.

“The nice thing about being a municipal port is that we can make decisions faster than a federal port with its larger bureaucracy. We consider that a major advantage in attracting new business.” While the five federally-administrated ports in Quebec (Montreal, Quebec City, Trois-Rivières, Saguenay and Sept-Îles) have a major role to play, smaller municipal and private ports along the St. Lawrence River such as Valleyfield also have their role in the economic development of the province, according to Michel Gadoua, President and General Manager, Port of Valleyfield.

The attractiveness of Valleyfield has been enhanced as a new port of call between Cleveland and Europe by Spliethoff Group of the Netherlands and, with the opening of the CSX intermodal terminal less than five minutes from the port, Mr. Gadoua added. “The port, located 70 kilometres west of Montreal and close to markets in Ontario and around the Great Lakes, receives more than 135 ships a year transporting more than 500,000 tonnes of cargo.” In addition to CSX, the port is served by CN and CP, as well as highways 20, 30 and 40 in Quebec, and the 401 and 417 in Ontario, Mr. Gadoua added. Led by Nunavut Eastern Arctic Shipping and Desgagnés Transarctik, Mr. Gadoua expects the port to play a major role under the Quebec government’s revived Plan Nord to develop Quebec’s far north, and in Canada’s growing presence in the north in general.