By Alex Binkley

Port of Thunder Bay wants to draw attention to its grain and dry bulk terminals when the delegates to the annual conference of the Association of Canadian Port Authorities are in town Sept. 6-9, says Port Authority CEO Tim Heney. “We plan to highlight our facilities because not many people get to Thunder Bay,” he points out.

The Port is well known for its location at the western end of Lake Superior as well as for its eight grain terminals which handle grain shipments from the Prairies. It wants to demonstrate the potential for its four dry bulk facilities and two liquid bulk facilities, as well as one general terminal to increase shipments of project cargo, breakbulk and forest products. The grain terminals possess the capability to ship about 18 million tonnes a year without any significant infrastructure investments, Heney says. That’s more than double what it usually receives. The bulk and other terminals are capable of moving 11 million tonnes of freight annually but currently receive about one million tonnes. “We’re all about capacity,” he adds.

For the 2015 shipping season, the Port handled 8.9 million tonnes, down 4.6 per cent from 2014 but better than the four previous years. Grain accounts for about 85 per cent of the Port’s annual tonnage. “It’s key for us.”

A record busting Prairie crop in 2013 kept the port busy all the next year. “Our capacity became well known after 2014,” he notes. “We improved turnaround times so well we became the place to go. We can load eight ships at a time.” Both CN and CP have main lines to the Port.

Heney doesn’t expect Thunder Bay will gain much additional business from the closure of the port of Churchill. Its historic average shipments were about 500,000 tonnes a year but dropped to about 280,000 tonnes in 2015. “We could handle that on a long weekend.” Even a more traditional export program of 500,000 tonnes destined for Churchill could be handled in about 10 days in Thunder Bay.

The grain that would have moved through Churchill this year is already in the grain handling system. By the time this year’s big crop is harvested and in country elevators, Churchill will be shut down for the season. Thunder Bay hopes its past performance will lead to more grain arriving at its terminals this fall and through the winter, Heney notes.

Before the Canadian Wheat Board was shut down by the Harper government, the agency was in charge of grain transportation in Canada, and it ensured that Churchill would receive a share of the Prairie grain exports. Now, private companies handle shipping of the grain they buy directly from farmers, Heney says. “They tend to favour their own facilities, and fortunately for us, we have facilities owned by most of the major players in Canada. They’re starting to use their supply chains through Thunder Bay and Quebec, and that’s been favourable to the Seaway.”

Thunder Bay has the largest grain storage capacity in North America and its eight terminals have a combined total storage capacity of 1.2 million tonnes. It has a faster grain ship turnaround time than Vancouver or Prince Rupert. It can handle wheat, durum, canola, coarse grains, oilseeds, feed grains, peas and other pulse crops as well as various grain by-products.

Loading rates at the terminals range from 1,000 to 3,400 tonnes per hour and eight ships can be loaded at the same time.

While looking forward to showing off the Port to the visitors, Heney also thinks the program for the Sea the Superior Way conference will highlight issues that are important to Thunder Bay as well as other ACPA ports. “We want to highlight the efforts that have been made to modernize the Seaway and the Great Lakes.”

Recommendations in the review of the Canada Transportation Act released earlier would continue the modernization of the Seaway-Great Lakes and reinforce the potential for short sea shipping. Heney says the industry is watching closely to see what decisions will be made by Transport Minister Marc Garneau. The Minister is to meet his provincial counterparts later in September to discuss the review and the reaction to its recommendations he collected during eight roundtables across Canada this summer. Proposals in the review to change federal rail regulation are a key issue in Western Canada and for his port as well as Vancouver and Prince Rupert, Heney points out.

The review called on Ottawa to phase out shipper protection rules the former Conservative government instituted after the grain transport chaos in early 2014 brought on the by the record 2013 harvest of 90 million tonnes.

Mark Hemmes, the federal Grain Transport Monitor, will be at the conference to discuss the issue. Heney expects he will receive plenty of questions about the demands of many shippers for the railways to be held financially accountable for poor service, along with the grain companies.

Other speakers at the conference will include Stefan Baranski, Regional Director, Energy East Ontario at Transport Canada, Jacques Beauchamp, CEO, Petro-Nav Inc. and Richard Wiefelspuett, Executive Director, Clear Seas for Responsible Marine Shipping. They will be discussing how Canada’s energy firms and the transportation sector are responding to the challenge of open and extensive public consultations on energy projects. The panel will explore opportunities for ports and the marine sector to use the consultation process to secure public support and broaden Canada’s energy exports. With the National Energy Board’s public hearings on the controversial Energy East Project under way, the topic should produce lively discussions during the conference.

Another topic for discussion at the conference will be the recent binational report on Seaway-Great Lakes improvements. Heney said any proposals to rejuvenate shipping in the waterway are welcome but he agreed with comments by the Shipping Federation of Canada that the report neglected the importance of ocean vessels on the Lakes. Other topics during the conference include making the Great Lakes great again, maritime innovation, Canada’s export goals and alternate port financing.

Earlier this year, the Port of Thunder Bay received a $1 million contribution from Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corp. to expand dock-side operations and construct a new storage facility to handle more cargo at its Keefer Terminal operations. The project involves the removal of an obsolete building to create a larger loading area and constructing a new 40,000 square-foot storage facility that will allow the port to handle more goods.

The 80-acre Keefer Terminal complex serves as a marine warehouse, storage and intermodal facility for cargo destined to Western Canada and in Northwestern Ontario. The port is a key link in the supply chain for heavy, dimensional cargoes destined for mine sites, wind farms, and oilsands developments in Western Canada. Project cargo volumes handled at Keefer Terminal reached a record high 135,000 tonnes in 2012.

It has a mobile harbour crane that can load and unload ships, rail cars and truck trailers, acres of storage and staging space, tracks connected to CN and CP railways and roads linked to the TransCanada Highway. Its intermodal yard has capacity for 200 railcars.

For ocean vessels, the Port offers grain, coal and potash for backhaul to Europe, North Africa, South America and the Middle East. Heney says the advent of service to the Port by Spliethoff has added another dimension to the Port in terms of inbound and export cargo. “We get two to three of their ships a month. They bring a lot of smaller shipments of project cargo and some containers. So far their arrivals are higher than last year.”

Earlier this year Spliethoff’s Minervagracht loaded the components of a massive crawler crane from Alberta to be transported to Europe. The shipment was part of Spliethoff’s regular cargo service between the Great Lakes and Europe that began in Cleveland in 2014. The service has grown since then to other Great Lakes ports and has seen delivered four shipments of project cargo to Keefer Terminal. The two-way service provides shippers the opportunity to transport partial shiploads without having to charter an entire vessel. This has opened up cargo diversification opportunities for the Port of Thunder Bay; most of the cargoes shipped to the port through Spliethoff have been oversized cargoes such as heavy machinery and mining equipment. But it will transport grain and other commodities rather than sailing empty, Heney notes. Spliethoff is the largest shipowner in the Netherlands, with a fleet of over 100 multipurpose vessels.