The port of Valleyfield now has more room for breakbulk and project cargo. That’s because Nunavut Eastern Arctic Shipping, which had used Valleyfield as a staging location for its service to Arctic communities for about two decades, relocated to Bécancour earlier this year. “It makes for a very different landscape now,” said Jean-Philippe Paquin, Port of Valleyfield’s general manager, in an interview in late July. “At this time of year, the port used to be full to the hilt with cargo destined for the Arctic. Now we have a lot more space available. And a lot of the steel players have come in to fill the void. This year we have very extensive traffic in steel, whether beams or plates or coils.”

That steel comes from many origins abroad, including Turkey, India, Southeast Asia, Britain, and Sweden, Mr. Paquin said. “Sweden, we had in the past as well. So it’s a continuing business.” The difficulty, though, was that previously those customers had little space to deliver those cargoes at Valleyfield during the intense Arctic shipping season. “The port was very busy. The berths were very busy,” Mr. Paquin said. “There was very little laydown space or storage space available. So the steel players were usually not looking at Valleyfield as a regular stop. It was mostly an opportunistic business that we’d get prior to the Arctic season or after the Arctic season in the fall.”

Easier for steel shippers

Now those ships can unload at Valleyfield, which is about 70 kilometres southwest of Montreal, during any season the St. Lawrence River is open to traffic. “Therefore it’s a lot easier for them to do business with us,” Mr. Paquin said. The move to Bécancour, about 200 kilometres downriver from Valleyfield and across the river from Trois-Rivières, is also good news for NEAS. “NEAS customers will immediately benefit from efficiencies, improved cargo drop-off, enhanced packaging and innovative container services, expanded warehousing options, faster loading and mid-season ship turnarounds,” a news release quoted Suzanne Paquin, NEAS Group President and CEO. (Mr. Paquin of Valleyfield is a distant relative of Ms. Paquin and her family, who are the principal shareholders of Logistec Corporation, one of the partners in the NEAS Group joint venture. “We all trace back to a single Paquin that came in during the French colonization in the 1600s,” Mr. Paquin said.)

So far in 2021, Valleyfield has had about 50 ships call at its Valport terminal, about half of them carrying steel. Most of the remainder carried liquid bulk for its McAsphalt terminal and the Valleytank Inc. terminal. Most of the ships bringing steel to Valleyfield are Fednav vessels. Other carriers include Canfornav and Spliethoff. The latter recently imported a load of lumber. “That’s really, really amazing,” Mr. Paquin said. “It’s a confirmation of the crazy prices in the lumber business we’ve seen this year due to Covid. Wood is so expensive that they bring it from overseas.” Yachts from Europe, as well as machinery, are other examples of breakbulk and project cargo. Steel, though, makes up the bulk of the breakbulk. By late July, about 300,000 tonnes of steel had arrived at Valleyfield. Mr. Paquin expects that total to reach 800,000 tonnes by year’s end, which would set a record.

Uranium from Europe

Valleyfield has seven berths, four used for general cargo ships. Most of those ships have their own cranes, which stevedores at Valport use to unload the ships. Exceptions are smaller Wagenborg ships, which usually don’t have their own loading gear. “We use a shore crane,” he said, describing it as “a very old rickety Guay crane” with the manufacturer’s name long ago painted over.

Related to breakbulk are Compass International ships that call monthly at Valleyfield with uranium products from Rotterdam. “When they carry uranium, they’re limited on the number of uranium containers they can take,” Mr. Paquin said. “But they can take other cargo as well. So they’ve diversified a lot. They bring in a substantial portion of breakbulk cargo as well into Valleyfield.”

The uranium arrives in special double-walled cylinders on flat racks the size of standard 20-foot shipping containers. “It’s considered dangerous cargo; so the handling needs to be more cautious. But we use the same ship cranes to unload those containers and we carry them around with the same type of reachstacker we use for regular containers,” Mr. Paquin said. They arrive on general cargo ships, though, not container vessels. “It’s not a typical container trade. And we are not a container port,” Mr. Paquin said, noting that constraints on the Seaway limit container trade. Nevertheless, he added, “There’s talk about a container ship coming into the lakes, maybe even as soon as this summer or this fall. But it hasn’t materialized yet.”

Over at Thunder Bay

About 2,000 kilometres over water to the west of Valleyfield, the port of Thunder Bay has had its “strongest year to date for steel imports,” said Chris Heikkenen, the Port’s director of business development and communications.

“We’ve had several shipments of structural steel and also several shipments of steel rail,” Mr. Heikkenen added. “That (steel rail) comes from the Poland-Czech Republic area and is destined for Western Canada. The structural steel comes from Luxembourg. That is dedicated to construction projects.”

A recently completed $15 million terminal reconfiguration project included six acres of additional paved laydown area that has been put into service for staging steel. The project also included a new 50,000 square foot heated storage building as well as 3,000 feet of upgraded rail track. “We have high demand for the interior heated space,” Mr. Heikkenen said. “That building is essentially full already.” Mr. Heikkenen did not have specific figures for the volumes of steel going through Thunder Bay. However, the port’s website tallied 11,156 tonnes of general cargo for January to June 2021 compared with 6,129 tonnes for the same period in 2020. The increase in steel imports point to a resurgence of the Western Canadian economy, Mr. Heikkenen said. He added that they also likely reflect tariffs the U.S. imposed on steel products a couple of years ago. “So the European manufacturers have found a market in Canada, and Canadians are tapping that product,” Mr. Heikkenen said.

Seaway general cargo rises 52 per cent

The Chamber of Marine Commerce reported in mid August that general cargo shipments on the Seaway totalled 1.6 million tonnes in 2021 to the end of July — a 52 per cent increase over that period in 2020. “This major increase continues to be driven by steel imports from Europe and other countries heading to Canadian and U.S. cities throughout the region, to help support pent-up demand for manufactured goods and construction activity,” a chamber news release said.

Breakbulk and project cargo from overseas arrives at Thunder Bay via ocean-going vessels, or salties, that can navigate the St. Lawrence Seaway/Great Lakes system, noted Thunder Bay’s Mr. Heikkenen. “One of the benefits of Thunder Bay is that we have a lot of backhaul cargo for any imported product. There’s always a backhaul grain cargo available to take back overseas,” he said.

The goal of shippers using Thunder Bay “is to get the cargo as far inland as possible via the marine route,” he added. Mr. Heikkenen said Thunder Bay has received an increase in inquiries for breakbulk and project cargo that he expects will lead to even larger cargo volumes in the next year or two. A major carrier for Thunder Bay is Fednav, which has larger ships than another regular visitor to the port, Wagenborg.

“Busy season”

Fednav was unable to make anyone from its marine department available for an interview. “They are all tied up at the moment with the busy season we are experiencing in the Seaway/Great-Lakes,” Fednav marketing lead Virginie Hacala explained in an email. In recent years, Fednav has added at least 22 box-hold Japanese-built handysized carriers of 34,500 deadweight tonnes to its fleet, according to a July 2018 press release. Those vessels, built at Oshima Shipyard, are designed to handle breakbulk and project cargoes, then Fednav President and CEO Mark Pathy told Canadian Sailings in 2013.

A box hold is rectangular as opposed to following the contours of the ship. That makes it ideal for stowing various types of steel, such as coils, pipes, beams, and rods, Mr. Pathy said in 2013, pointing out that Fednav already had other box-hold vessels in its fleet. “The stowage therefore is easier and you need less dunnage,” he said. In a 2016 news release, Mr. Pathy described the box-hold handysize ships as “Lakes-suitable and ice-class for year-round trading in the St. Lawrence.”

Prefab modules in and out

Recent project cargoes at Thunder Bay include dimensional engines and prefab modules built in Europe and destined for Western Canada, Mr. Heikkenen said.

“We’ve actually done inbound and outbound modular dwellings. Some that are built in Canada are headed east actually,” Mr. Heikkenen said.

Helping to move those large cargoes is a Liebherr EHM 320 mobile harbour crane the port acquired in 2012. “To have that crane is something that has definitely been part of the equation in terms of attracting cargo through Thunder Bay,” Mr. Heikkenen said.

On the horizon are “some very heavy, very heavy lifts that are likely to hit the dock in the fall,” he said. Those include large components such as towers and nacelles for wind energy projects on the Prairies. He said 2020 was supposed to be a “banner year” for the port with a lot of wind farm projects on the books. “And then construction halted as a result of the pandemic,” Mr. Heikkenen observed. With that business slowly ramping back up, “we’re looking at next year and even 2023 as better years for that kind of cargo,” he added.

Diverting breakbulk from road to water

Pinnacle Logistics Solutions — headquartered in Cambridge, Ont. — is diverting breakbulk cargo that would traditionally move by road to marine along the Great Lakes/Seaway. “We successfully diverted some modular units from what was expected to be a road transportation solution to a barging solution, moving from west to east and finally discharging at a Quebec port,” said Aaron Gerber, Pinnacle’s vice president of sales. Instead of going by road through northern Ontario, the units, which were fabricated in western Canada, were loaded in Thunder Bay and transported by barge to Bécancour to be loaded on a vessel for delivery to the Arctic. Mr. Gerber said the client is shy about being named in the news, which is why he didn’t wish to reveal many details of that particular project. He was also circumspect about naming the carriers Pinnacle is working with.

“We’re working with the different vessel owners who call on the ports within the Great Lakes to help our clients secure capacity in a market that’s really challenging to do that,” Mr. Gerber said. However, he did reveal the vessels are carrying “large amounts of construction materials,” up to 18,000 tonnes at a time. He attributed much of that to increased road construction that coincided with the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The provinces of Ontario and Quebec were really motivated to take advantage of the reduction in road traffic and pump additional construction projects through,” Mr. Gerber said. “It is great to have those projects completed but it presents challenges when it comes to over-the-road transportation, especially of over-dimensional high, wide and heavy commodities.” A few customers reached out to Pinnacle to solve that pain point. As a “transportation agnostic organization,” Gerber’s company looked at multiple transport modes and found that marine made a lot of sense. “We’ve got a high level of expertise when it comes to moving project cargo over the road, or the rail and over the water,” he said.

Strategic assets owned

Unlike many third-party logistics companies, Pinnacle owns some of its own assets. “They’re sparing and they’re strategic assets that serve our clients,” Mr. Gerber said. They include specialized trailering units for the wind industry — such as what are known as Schnabel dollies and double Schnabels. Pinnacle will also lease equipment. “But we don’t actually hire any drivers. We don’t employ any operators of any kind, whether that’s road, rail, or marine,” Mr. Gerber noted.

Pinnacle will work with crane rental companies, for example, to move stuff around. “It really is integrated solutions,” Mr. Gerber said. “The scope of the solutions has everything to do with the needs and demands of the customer. We see ourselves as an extension of our clients’ businesses.”

The company accomplishes that with just 16 employees who manage a team of project managers, subcontracting project managers, and thousands of truck drivers and marine and rail operators. “Those 16 cast a wide net,” Mr. Gerber said.

Wind remains a big part of Pinnacle’s business, although it is diversifying and growing in such areas as mining and modular construction. “Our chartering division is growing in a big way, which is mostly raw supplies for the construction industry,” Mr. Gerber said. “We’re also getting a great deal of traction in nuclear.”

The latter has been over-the-road. However, Pinnacle is looking at marine transport via the Great Lakes.

Great Lakes critical

Overall, the Great Lakes are critical to Pinnacle’s business, although Mr. Gerber couldn’t pin a percentage on it. “Whether our scope is handling a piece of freight once it arrives here in the Americas, whether we’re talking about actually transporting something on the water ourselves, it’s touching that marine component,” Mr. Gerber said.

And while it didn’t involve the Great Lakes/Seaway, a recent wind project did have a big marine component. Rather than try to move the cargoes entirely overland to Fort MacLeod, Alta. from Vancouver, Wash., Pinnacle barged them east on the Columbia and Snake rivers into Idaho before trucking them north into Canada. “So what was supposed to be a road solution turned into a multi-modal solution. And it saved our clients millions of dollars,” Mr. Gerber said.

Hamilton and Oshawa rebound

Hamilton Oshawa Port Authority reported that cargo volumes at the two ports began to rebound in 2021 after being down by over 30 per cent at one point in the spring of 2020, the Port Authority said in response to written questions. At Hamilton, general cargo volumes to the end of July were up compared to the same periods in 2020 and 2019 — 2,054 tonnes so far this year; 827 tonnes in 2020; and 1,819 tonnes in 2019. Steel volumes were also up year over year for the period: 575,588 in 2021; 230,546 in 2020; and 147,116 in 2019. Hamilton had handled nearly 10 million tonnes of cargo in 2020, almost exactly the amount as the year before.

Oshawa posted its best season ever in 2020, exceeding 672,000 tonnes for the first time, “driven by strong trade in fertilizer, grain, steel and cement.” As of July 31, Hamilton and Oshawa combined handled 4.8 million tonnes of cargo in 2021.

Breakbulk accounted for about 13 per cent of the cargo at the two ports. That’s up from 10 per cent in 2019.

Steel volumes at Hamilton rose 149 per cent in 2021 to the end of July compared with 2020. Oshawa steel volumes were up 42 per cent.

An example of a recent project cargo move through Hamilton was the arrival in the fall of 2020 of Ontario-made oversized power generation modules, led by Precision Specialized. The modules were loaded on BBC Eagle at Federal Marine Terminal Hamilton for the trip to France.Aside from BBC Chartering, other breakbulk/project cargo carriers calling at Hamilton include Fednav, Canfornav, Spliethoff/Big Lift, and Wagenborg.

Hamilton’s Westport Modernization Project has leveraged over $50 million in private sector investment, on top of $17 million from the federal government’s National Trade Corridors Fund in 2017 and a matching contribution from the Port Authority. So far the project has included a 56,000 square foot warehouse expansion at Fluke Transportation on Pier 15. The new facility supports the Hamilton region’s $1 billion food sector.

Meanwhile, work on the FMT terminal at piers 12 and 14 has included expanding and rebuilding dock walls as well as constructing a 40,000 square foot fabric warehouse. Among the other improvements are roadway extensions and new service utilities to create access to northern parcels of the port for future development.

Heavy lifting on the Gaspé

Groupe Bellemare, headquartered in Trois-Rivières, has been doing a lot of heavy lifting and moving of wind turbine components — along the Gaspé Peninsula. From 2016 to May 26, 2021, Bellemare Transport had delivered 4,663 blades, having moved them a combined total of over a million kilometres, according to a recent article on the company website. The blades travelled 235 km from LM Wind Power in Gaspé to Fabrication Delta in New Richmond, where they were loaded on trains destined for Texas.

The Gaspé work is a joint project of Bellemare Transport and Groupe Bellemare’s separate Heavy Haul & Rigging division, said Andrew Miller, senior business development representative with the latter. Bellemare Transport handles the blades while Heavy & Haul Rigging moves the heavier tower sections, Mr. Miller said.

Bellemare Heavy Haul & Rigging also moves project cargo by water. “We took a big skid into Ontario last summer,” Mr. Miller said. “It was manufactured in Quebec, we loaded on a barge took it down the Seaway and offloaded it, and took it to where it was ultimately going.” The division has about 100 drivers, 145 to 150 trucks, and nearly 500 trailers. “We’ve got a lot of equipment,” said Kevin Kwateng, Bellemare’s director of heavy haul operations.

Other recent projects include accelerated construction of the pedestrian bridge on Montreal’s Champlain Bridge, and hauling replacement components hundreds of kilometres overland to Hydro Quebec dams in the James Bay area.

Windsor reports steel increase

About midway between Thunder Bay and Valleyfield, Morterm Limited at the port of Windsor has seen an uptick in its breakbulk steel volumes in 2021. “Compared to 10 years ago, I would say it’s down but compared to last year, with all the Covid, we’ve exceeded our entire revenue stream already this year versus last year,” said Michael Semande, corporate director of operations for Essex Terminal Railway, Morterm and Motipark. He estimated conservatively that steel volumes are up 20 percent this year over 2020. In a typical year, Morterm handles about 400,000 tonnes of various commodities such as steel coil, steel beams, and aluminum ingots, Mr. Semande said. Most of the steel landing at Morterm is destined for the Greater Toronto Area.

“Even though steel prices are astronomically high, our business is carrying on,” Mr. Semande said. “And we’re busy with five vessels per month, which is not like 10 years ago when we would be 7 to 10 vessels per month.”

While Morterm can, and has shipped out breakbulk, it is primarily a discharge terminal. “Typically it’s more or less landing the material here and then using the facility as more of a storage ground or a transloading function either to road carrier or to rail,” Mr. Semande said.

That the terminal is a subsidiary of Essex Terminal Railway, which is headquartered in Windsor, “makes it very easy for moving material and organizing shipments,” Mr. Semande said. “We’re not waiting on an outside contracted rail provider to bring cars in or out,” he added. Essex also connects with major railways like Canadian National, Canadian Pacific, and CSX. “We ship to the U.S. using CSX daily.”

The terminal, which can load 10 to 12 rail cars and 26 to 30 trucks daily, includes about 70 acres of outdoor storage, serviced by a 400-tonne Manitowoc crawler crane and reachstackers. At any given time, about a dozen stevedores in two gangs work 12-hour shifts. “Then we’ve got our own 10 staff that are operating the equipment, the cranes, ship cranes, the shore crane, and the lift trucks,” Mr. Semande said.

Morterm is also looking at storing food products at its warehouses for Archer-Daniels-Midlands Company, or ADM, a U.S.-based food processing giant that has a plant in Windsor. “However, we just haven’t gotten too far out on any of these projects because our warehouses are completely full with steel,” Mr. Semande said. If anything, he expects even more steel to arrive in the next few years as construction ramps up on the new US$5.7 billion Gordie Howe International Bridge linking Windsor with Detroit. “We do plan to handle and store quite a bit of that material as well,” Mr. Semande said. Bridging North America, the private partner in the public-private partnership, and its government partners are seeking to use about half of Morterm’s outside storage space for the bridge’s panels, he said. “And with our close proximity to the bridge being connected to the rail, which is just outside of our gate, we can easily pass those panels right through and have direct access for lifting them to the bridge,” said Mr. Semande, whose office is only about half a kilometre from the bridge, which is slated to open in 2024. “We can watch the bridge being built.”