By Keith Norbury

An approximately $1 billion upgrade to the coal terminal at North Vancouver’s Neptune Terminals was “in the final stage of construction” and 90 per cent complete by the end of January 2021, according to Teck Resources Ltd.’s fourth quarter 2020 financial report. Teck, which is a partner in Neptune Terminals, noted that all major equipment had also been installed and “significant new facilities have been placed into operation and are performing to plan.” However, the report added that issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic have added $80 million to $100 million to the cost of the project, which had already suffered from a cost overrun of about 10 per cent. The first coal through the upgraded facility is expected in the second quarter of 2021.

Teck Resources and Canpotex, one of the western world’s largest potash exporters, are the two partners in Neptune Terminals. All of the coal that goes through the facility is metallurgical coal used in making steel. It is shipped to steel mills in such countries as Korea, Japan, China, Poland, Germany, and the Czech Republic.

Steelmaking coal

“One of the things that’s most visible from the road is our new tandem railcar dumper, which is used to unload trains of Canadian steelmaking coal,” the Neptune Terminals post said. “This equipment helps us do this much more quickly because it can unload two railcars at once. It connects to the new conveyors, which transport the product to either our stockpile or directly to a vessel waiting to be loaded for export. The new dumper is fully enclosed and mitigates dust, noise and light, protecting our employees, community and local environment. You can also see our new wet scrubber, which filters air before it is released into the dumper or the atmosphere, ensuring we always meet or exceed air quality standards set by Metro Vancouver.”

Major equipment all installed

Teck expects to spend about $310 million in 2021 through to the project’s completion. That’s on top of $150 million in capital costs in the fourth quarter of 2020. “All major equipment is now installed and work activity is focused on final mechanical installations and completion of electrical and control systems. Significant new facilities including the replacement of the existing dumper and the stacker-reclaimer have been fully constructed, tested and successfully placed in operation with train dumping and ship loading performing as planned,” that report said.

The report also noted a 35-day scheduled outage in the first quarter of 2021 that involved the removal of an existing shiploader “and installing a new high capacity shiploader and associated material handling systems.” By the end of the quarter, the company expected construction would wrap up on the terminal’s in-bound coal facilities that include a new tandem railcar dumper “with first deliveries of steelmaking coal early in the second quarter and commissioning and full ramp up to follow.”

Teck envisions that the money will be well-spent. As the fourth quarter report noted, “Once completed, the upgrade project will significantly increase terminal-loading capacity and improve our capability to meet delivery commitments to our customers while lowering our overall logistics costs.”

Five-month hiatus

Construction did include a planned five-month shutdown of terminal operations, which concluded in September and enabled operations to resume ahead of schedule. “Commissioning of the upgraded single dumper, stacker-reclaimer and the existing shiploader were ahead of plan with unloading of railcars and loading of vessels occurring in the month of September,” the quarterly report said.

A key element of the upgrade is a new stacker-reclaimer, designed by EMS Teck in Ontario and built by Ramsay Machine Works and United Engineering of Victoria, B.C.

The 30-metre high stacker-reclaimer, which weighs 1,200 tonnes, entered Vancouver harbour on the Dynamic Giant crane barge in August 2020, noted the North Shore News at the time. The machine was the culmination of 100,000 hours of labour involving 50 companies, the report said. “Which was awesome. We are big promoters of purchasing local,” the news report quoted Duana Kipling, Neptune’s acting President. As its name suggests, the stacker-reclaimer has two functions: it stacks coal into a stockpile, and a huge bucket loader at the end of the machine’s 45-metre boom scoops the coal onto a conveyor belt that feeds a shiploader.

The new stacker-reclaimer will boost capacity from 12.5 million tonnes to about 18.5 million tonnes. That’s equivalent to one extra unit train each day at the facility and about one more ship every three weeks.

New shiploader

The new shiploader meanwhile replaces one of two existing shiploaders at Berth 1 of the terminals. “This new equipment means we can load large Capesize ships more efficiently, as we don’t need to move the shiploader up and down the dock to reach all the ship’s holds,” the company says.

On average, Neptune loads about 330 ships a year, including Handymax, Panamax, and Cape-size vessels. On average it takes about three days to load a ship with coal, and two days to load one with potash.

The facility receives about two trains a day on average. It takes about 7.6 hours to unload a coal train, and 10.5 hours to unload a potash train. An electronic indexer is used to move coal trains through the dumpers for unloading. A continuous loop track design, and because the unit trains carry single commodities, helps reduce noise from separating and reconnecting the railcars. The tracks are also lubricated to minimize squealing, notes the FAQ. The trains arrive by Canadian National Railway from across the Second Narrows Bridge.

“Neptune has three berths at which we can load ships: berth 1 is used exclusively for steelmaking coal loading, and berths 2 and 3 are used for potash,” notes the Neptune website.

Capacity increased

The facility, which opened in 1968, operates around the clock, seven days a week. The upgraded project will increase total capacity (coal and potash) from 23.5 million tonnes to 30 million tonnes.

Other features of the coal system project include a dust-suppression system upgrade, which increased the number of mist spraying nozzles to 220 from 36 previously. “The new system will maximize coverage of the coal stockpile and further enhance our ability to prevent dust from leaving the site, particularly during high wind events. It will also be fully automated to optimize water usage,” said a construction update the Neptune Terminals website in August 2020.

Neptune Terminals has about 350 full-time equivalent employees, including 50 staff with the remaining 300 being unionized workers, who include longshoremen and foremen with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. The terminal expects to add more jobs when the upgraded coal system goes into operation.