By Alex Binkley

While a massive growth in grain exports was the headline event in 2014 Seaway traffic results, the readiness of marine terminals on the Great Lakes to handle a wide variety of products played a pivotal role in the 7 per cent increase in cargo shipped through the waterway. Grain shipments rose nearly 45 per cent with nearly three quarters passing through the Port of Thunder Bay’s elevators. General cargo, including iron and steel products, nearly doubled, while dry bulk such as road salt and aggregates posted a 12 per cent hike.

The Seaway figures don’t include the shipments within the Great Lakes that don’t pass through its locks, but do add to the terminals’ workload. Bruce Graham, Vice-President of Great Lakes Stevedoring, said in an interview that the four terminals the company operates in Ontario usually handle the same products from year to year and are mainly influenced by local economic activity. The terminals at Hamilton, Oshawa, Port Colborne and Port Weller have been upgraded by Great Lakes Stevedoring, a subsidiary of Quebec Stevedoring Co. and shippers have noticed. “We are finding increased interest in our services and we’ve been having a number of conversations about future possibilities,” he added. The terminals load or unload ships and store the inbound cargo until it is hauled away by truck or train to the final customer, he said. 

The Hamilton terminal handles mostly steel for local industries and bulk materials while Port Weller receives project materials and agriculture supplies. Port Colborne draws aggregates, barge loads, salt and industrial equipment while Oshawa deals with a mix as well.

One of the company’s strengths is its pool of employees it can tap into depending on the job, he said. Elsewhere, ports and terminal operators throughout the Lakes have expanded and modernized facilities in recent years and more plans are in the works.

A study done for the Chamber of Maritime Commerce and the Great Lakes Ports Association on infrastructure investment in the region found that between 2009 and 2013, $4.8 billion of government and private funding was invested in ships, ports and terminals, and waterway infrastructure. An additional $2.3 billion is earmarked for spending in the next few years.

In Ontario, the investments in ports, terminals and waterway facilities will reach $996.3 million between 2009 and 2018, the study predicted, while in Quebec it will be in the $1.2 billion range. The report suggested that terminal investments could even be greater because not all companies would disclose future building plans. Generally, private investment was twice the level of public support.

The ports have yet to issue final tonnage reports for 2014 but overall it appears they at least matched long term averages and some did much better. Starting at the western end of Lake Superior, this is what ports are reporting in terms of terminal upgrades and activity:

In 2014, Thunder Bay Port Authority spent more than $1 million on infrastructure upgrades at Keefer Terminal, the port’s general cargo facility, reported Chris Heikkinen, the communications and outreach co-ordinator. “The major component was the completion of a two-year project to upgrade and resurface five acres of roofing on the facility’s largest cargo shed. TBPA will continue to upgrade its assets at Keefer Terminal during 2015. There is approximately $250,000 allocated between the purchase of new marine cargo-handling equipment and wharf upgrade work.”

In addition to the tremendous grain shipping season, 2014 brought other positive news to the port. Spliethoff Group, an Amsterdam-based vessel management company, will begin regular cargo service between the Great Lakes and Europe, the Baltic States and Russia later this year, comparable to the trans-Atlantic service it offers out of Cleveland. The service will accommodate containers, rolling machinery and heavy equipment, as well as project cargo, breakbulk, bulk and steel cargoes. Once Spliethoff’s regular service begins, local and regional shippers will be able to send cargo as backhaul to Europe and beyond.

The terminal also handled its first load of European wood pellets for Thunder Bay Hydro’s generating station. It also received two dozen windmill blades for Bow Lake Wind Project near Sault Ste. Marie.

Moving east, the Goderich Port Management Corp has proposed an expansion of its existing wharf facilities to address “constraints to existing and future users of the Goderich Port.” It has initiated a study under the Ontario Environmental Assessment Act about the impact of adding berthing spots for ships and additional protection from waves off Lake Huron. The Port says it receives about 250 ships annually mostly for hauling salt, grain and calcium chloride for Sifto Salt Mine, Southpier Terminals, and Da-Lee Dust Control. “Sifto has undergone an expansion at its facility in the harbour, resulting in an increase in salt production. However, without more loading, unloading and storage space at the harbour, much of the salt produced in the first quarter of the year, when ships are not sailing, will have to be trucked out. Also, the harbour is unable to accommodate new users who wish to bring in other commodities such as aggregates, due to limited storage space. In addition to limited loading, unloading and storage space, there are issues with the configuration of the existing harbour.”

David Cree, President and CEO of Windsor Port Authority, said 2013 produced a record result and the port returned to more normal levels of business during 2014 with most activity at the Sterling Fuels and aggregate terminals. “We’ll be somewhere around the 10-year average.” With a major infrastructure project in the city nearing completion, the demand for stone shipments and steel girders dropped. While always on the lockout for new customers, the port doesn’t foresee any new developments, he added.

As the busiest Canadian port on the Great Lakes, Hamilton has seen major work carried out at its terminals in recent years and more is coming, says spokeswoman Larissa Fenn. Built on handling bulk and breakbulk commodities, and now handling more than 10 million tonnes of highly diversified cargo annually, the port has seen significant upgrading of its facilities and terminals in recent years. During 2014, two terminal projects came to completion and started handling cargo, she noted. Yellowline Asphalt Products Ltd. unloaded its first shipment of bulk liquid asphalt, which loaded into storage tanks through the company’s new above-ground pipeline. The shipment of asphalt for road construction came from Montreal and was the equivalent of approximately 100 rail tankers. The terminal can handle shipments by marine, rail or highway. Yellowline was established by Dufferin Construction and Aecon Group to set up a new asphalt cement tank farm and mixing facility in the port. Construction was completed during 2014. The new facility offers 30,000 tonnes of capacity, or about three months’ supply. There is also a mixing tank to produce a range of grades, and four 1,000-tonne day tanks to hold the asphalt cement immediately prior to shipping. The Port redeveloped a brownfield site acquired from Stelco. Meanwhile two 10,000 tonne storage tanks for liquid fertilizer were opened as part of a new Sylvite Agri-Services terminal, she added. The fertilizer is widely used in agricultural production throughout Ontario. The $4 million storage tanks will boost Sylvite’s capacity at the Port to 38,000 tonnes from the previous 18,000 tonnes. They will enable Sylvite to import fertilizers from Europe, South America and the Caribbean, and are part of the port’s movement into handling agriculture commodities and inputs. The port now offers an array of bulk, breakbulk, project cargo and liquid bulk handling facilities, including two grain terminals, for the 600 ship visits it receives annually. It has the largest staging area on the Great Lakes and more than one million square feet of warehouse space.

Next door at PortsToronto (as Toronto Port Authority has re-branded itself), port operations are often overshadowed by debates over the Island Airport (owned by Toronto Port Authority) and the future development of the city’s waterfront. Spokeswoman Erin Mikaluk said more than 1.5 million tonnes of freight a year arrives annually at its Marine Terminal 51 and Warehouse 52. The 50-acre site has more than 225,000 square feet of warehouse space and more than 30 acres of paved marshalling area, for short and long-term storage, warehousing and project staging . Shipments include bulk supplies such as road salt, cement and aggregates, steel pipe, project cargo and mining equipment. “We are right downtown, and that means a lot for many of our customers,” she pointed out. They include construction companies involved in the city’s endless building boom while Redpath takes sugar deliveries.

On the other side of Toronto, Port of Oshawa has high hopes for 2015 based on a strong finish to 2014 and the completion of major projects that are already drawing new industry to the port. Gary Valcour, Chairman of the Oshawa Port Authority, said, “The port has the capacity and opportunity to serve current customers and attract new investment like never before.” Oshawa has high hopes for its new $2.5 million cargo pad on the east port lands. The cargo pad enabled the port to attract extra business last fall. With completion of the East Wharf Consolidation Project, new rail spur, and the port’s proximity to highways and airport, it can now offer industry all means for reaching world markets. One of the port’s newest customers is Triad Metals International, a wholesale distributor of structural steel products in the U.S, which is currently building its first Canadian warehousing operation close to the port. Jeff Hroncich, Vice-President of Sales Canada for Triad, says, “The port allows us to serve Ontario, Quebec, the Maritimes and the U.S. far more efficiently.”

Other terminal developments generating interest are a joint project involving Valero Energy Corp. and Groupe Desgagnés to transport western crude oil from Valero’s Montreal terminal to the company’s oil refinery in Levis for processing. Jacques Beauchamp, President and General Manager of Petro-Nav, Desgagnés’ tanker operation, says the company has acquired two Panamax-sized tankers to sail in a shuttle service between the sites. The first step is getting federal approval to reverse the flow in the Line 9 pipeline between Montreal and Sarnia so that Valero can receive the crude oil to process. After that, the shuttle service would begin with two to three trips a week to reduce Valero’s Lévis refinery’s dependence on imported crude. Beauchamp said in an interview that since the plan became public, he has received a lot of calls from other businesses wondering about possible marine transportation options. Some involve product from the Levis refinery while others focus on new uses for marine transport, he added. New services or developments seem to stir the creative process and other possibilities inevitably surface, he says.

Downriver at Port of Sept-Îles, a new iron ore export dock will open this summer once the final handling equipment is ready. The project was conceived in 2012 when iron ore prices were much higher than they are today. No new mines have come on stream, while one major mine has discontinued operations. As a result, the dock may see only minimal traffic once it opens.