By Alex Binkley

Spliethoff, operating under the name BigLift, and McKeil Marine have geared up to serve the demand for project cargo shipments on the Seaway/Great Lakes. Their preparation has been matched by the ports of Thunder Bay, Hamilton, Johnston and Valleyfield as well as several U.S. harbours. However, just how much project cargo moves through the Seaway-Great Lakes is hard to pin down because the St. Lawrence Seaway doesn’t report project cargo volumes as a separate category. It’s included in the general cargo category and to the end of September, general cargo passing through the Seaway stood at 2.2 million tonnes, down 6.2 per cent compared to same period in 2017.

Bart Peters, Director of the Atlantic Department of Amsterdam-based Spliethoff says the company delivers containers to Valleyfield and Ramey’s Bend in Ontario as part of its scheduled Cleveland Europe Express service and can transport project cargo and steel shipments to them as well. “Next to these regular ports of call, our ships are calling at any other port where our customers ask us to deliver or pick up cargo,” he said. “This year, we had ships in Johnstown, Hamilton, Erie, Detroit, Chicago, Burns Harbor, Milwaukee, Duluth and Thunder Bay.” Shipments can go or come from Russia, Finland, the Baltic States, the U.K. and continental Europe, he said. BigLift uses a diverse fleet of specialized transport ships to haul a wide range of project cargoes including refinery and energy project components. However he’s worried about the long-term future of the service “due to the bizarre and absurd costs for pilotage in the Seaway/Great Lakes. This kills business faster than we can create it.”

Pilotage costs are “the main obstacle for growth at this moment and are prohibitive for any development,” he said. “So, no positive news, and, no greater volumes, unless this changes.”

McKeil has a fleet of sectional barges, tugs, work boats, cranes and other equipment that it has used in the last decade to tackle a wide variety of projects on the Great Lakes and in the Eastern Arctic. “Our project services offer customizable solutions to the unique challenges of customers,” it says. Loading ramps, spuds and other modifications are made to service temporary dock facilities, drilling platforms and cargo staging. Among its many project cargoes, McKeil hauled loads wind turbine pieces to the Wolfe Island Wind Farm development near Kingston, the site now houses eight-seven 2.3 MegaWatt wind turbines.

Port of Thunder Bay bills itself as Canada’s Gateway to the West. Keefer Terminal, its general cargo facility, received a federal investment of $7.5 million earlier this year for infrastructure improvements, the port says. The terminal upgrade also received a $1 million contribution from the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund. The terminal is an important link in the supply chain for heavy, dimensional cargoes destined for mine sites, wind farms and the oilsands in Western Canada.

Reconfiguration of the terminal will ensure that this critical supply chain asset continues to facilitate international trade, and particularly trade between Canada and Europe. Project cargo shipments are 120 per cent above average so far this year.

The reconfiguration project involves adding new track infrastructure and laydown areas for cargo staging and transshipment to respond to increased demand, and building a 4,645 square metre multi-purpose heated facility to suit requirements of terminal users. An existing aging shed will be removed to improve cargo and improve site safety.

Work on the project has begun with the removal of existing track and the construction of a two acre granular laydown area. Building construction is anticipated to commence in 2019. The terminal is serviced by both CN and CP and has ready highway access.

An example of the shipments passing through the terminal this year were dozens of modular building units delivered by rail from Western Canada for shipment by water to the U.S. Virgin Islands. They were transported by BigLift vessels.

Many other project cargoes arrived at the terminal for forwarding across the Prairies. A common shipment was windmill components headed for windfarm developments. As well, steel components arrived in the port for Western customers. The terminal has an 80-acre full service facility including cranes and storage area. The Port notes it has plenty of backhaul freight including grain, coal and potash for arriving vessels.

The port of Hamilton also has cranes and other unloading equipment for project cargoes, plenty of indoor warehousing and access to rail and highway transportation.

The port of Johnstown, which is expanding its project cargo facility by an additional six acres of land, handled wind farm components for a project near Picton and imported steel beams for regional construction projects this year.Valleyfield has become a staging centre freight and project components for Arctic and northern cargoes.