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  November 2nd, 2021 | Written by


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For the marine industry, “onward and upward” may be a fitting idiom. Even with the COVID-19 pandemic a constant, port congestion a problem, a scarcity of ship capacity and a shortage of terminal workers and truck drivers, just to mention a few issues, cargo keeps moving and ports and terminals keep doing their best to meet the daily challenges and plan for the future.

Hans Bean, chief commercial officer for North Carolina Ports, touched on the impact of supply chain issues in the breakbulk sector.

“Much has been written about the major supply chain disruption caused by the container carriers,” he notes. “This has driven shippers, where possible, to shift more of their supply chain to breakbulk. North Carolina Ports has seen import and export shippers increase the share of their ocean freight to breakbulk over the last six months.”

Bean says this global switch to more breakbulk “has driven up breakbulk ocean rates as well as warehouse utilization. The challenges on the U.S. East Coast lie primarily with warehouse capacity.”

He explained that, “In recent months, many U.S. East Coast ports have reached warehouse capacity limits and either had to turn vessels away or force extremely long wait times.” 

Though warehouse capacity is approaching 100% utilization, North Carolina Ports “has not overstepped its capacity limits due to its flexibility with its two-port solution,” Bean says in references to the ports of Wilmington and Morehead City. “Moreover, North Carolina Ports has land to grow and is looking to invest alone and with partners so to add capacity.”

North Carolina Ports’ two deep-water terminals at Wilmington and Morehead City have a long tradition of handling bulk and breakbulk cargoes. Over the past six years, Bean’s port authority has spent more than $200 million upgrading its container and non-container facilities at both locations.

“In the past two years, new dimension lumber breakbulk services have taken advantage of these improvements in both ports with Ultrabulk, G2 Ocean, Saga Welco and Spliethoff all activating new breakbulk services,” Bean said.

“At the Port of Wilmington, the diverse and multi-purpose terminal allows shippers that utilize both container and breakbulk modes of transportation to pivot between containers and breakbulk,” said Bean. “The ability to provide cross-over solutions has become a major advantage as pulp and paper products, grain, steel and even cold chain shippers seek additional capacity and re-evaluate their supply chains.” 

He also noted that on one terminal, Scoular, a major exporter of grain, feed and food ingredients, is completing a new grain transload facility that is scheduled to be operational by mid-November.

The Port of Morehead City, dedicated to bulk and breakbulk, recently received a new Liebherr LPS 420 crane, including new buckets/hopper equipment. 

Southern exposure

After a drop in cargo volume in fiscal year 2020/21, things are looking up at the Port of Beaumont, with an eye on growing volumes and moving forward on infrastructure projects at the Texas facility.

“2021 has been the year of focusing on infrastructure improvements to increase capacity at the Port of Beaumont,” said Sade Chick, the port’s director of Corporate Affairs. “As of Q3 of 2021, industrial projects have started to pick back up, which has had a positive impact on breakbulk volumes.”

Sade said the port recently issued more than $400 million in revenue bonds to Jefferson Energy Companies, the port’s private partner and operator of the Orange County Liquid Bulk Terminal, which will go toward infrastructure improvements, including construction of a third dock at the facility. An uptick in liquid bulk cargo volumes is anticipated in 2022. 

As well, the port commissioners approved a $217 million capital improvement program, comprised of 20 projects for 2021-2022. 

“The port is especially excited about this program because three of our largest projects will be out to bid by early 2022,” Chick said in reference to the Main Street Terminal 1 dock reconstruction project ($85.2 million), Grain Dock rehabilitation project ($25 million) and construction of a new rail interchange track ($12.3 million).

Also, of the 20 projects, 10 will directly impact breakbulk handling. The hard-surfacing of lots 5 and 13, the Lot 14 paving project, South End Infrastructure improvements and the Harbor Island Drive resurfacing project will result in an additional 30 acres of hard-surfaced laydown area for breakbulk cargoes.

Harbor Island Drive is the main road used to move cargo in and out of the port. The road will be resurfaced to expedite the process of moving large project components, like wind blades. 

Chick said that, “Upon completion of Main Street Terminal 1, the port will have an additional 1,150-foot-long dock used for general cargo handling. This will provide the port with an additional berth that will primarily be used for military equipment, wind turbine components and forest products.”

With a glimpse to the future, Chick said, “We anticipate growth in project cargo, specifically wind turbine components and refinery components. The driver for growth in wind energy is the Biden administration’s approved plans for the construction of the first, large-scale U.S. offshore wind farm.” 

The petrochemical industry is cyclical and historically, a downturn is followed by fairly rapid recovery, which comes in the form of projects starting back up, increasing the amount of project cargo moving through the Port of Beaumont. 

Milwaukee brewing

Although breakbulk has been down about 8% so far this year at Port Milwaukee located on Lake Michigan, Port Director Adam Tindall-Schlicht is optimistic some major projects will increase volumes.

Port Milwaukee handles a wide variety of breakbulk and non-containerized cargo, including steel (coils, plate, and long products), wind turbine components (towers, nacelles, blades, generators), brewery tanks, mining equipment, yachts, forest products, transformers, farm and construction machinery, manufacturing equipment, bagged materials and other project cargoes.

But one project, in particular, that holds great promise for the port is the construction of new headquarters and manufacturing plant by Komatsu Mining Corp, which produces heavy equipment. The project, in the Milwaukee Harbor District, has a price tag of $285 million. 

“The Komatsu project is directly related to opportunities for breakbulk,” said Tindall-Schlicht. “Komatsu has historically leveraged the Milwaukee port when it is exporting its mining equipment and large breakbulk pieces. Now that their new headquarters and manufacturing facilities are directly adjacent to us in the Harbor District, we really anticipate increased activity with Komatsu.”

Port Milwaukee has also been getting activity from the Ascent project under construction downtown. The 25-story apartment tower is the world’s largest timber structure “and we are within their supply chain so those pieces (timber) are being imported into North America from Austria, and the port is providing just-in-time delivery services,” Tindall-Schlicht said.

The port has put an emphasis on capital improvement this year and is in the process of developing the DeLong Terminal, which is an $85-million agriculture export terminal. It is expected to be operational in April 2023.

As has been the situation globally, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted Milwaukee’s trade patterns.

Although 2020 was the port’s best year in seven years with an overall commercial volume increase of 5%, Tindall-Schlicht pointed out that, “The supply chain and worldwide logistics issues that we have seen this year as a result of COVID are starting to impact the port. Our breakbulk trade is down about 8% so far this season.” 

It just goes to show that challenging issues in the marine industry are not confined to containerized cargo.

“We are seeing changes and impacts in dry bulk and breakbulk markets and really in all commodity areas that Port Milwaukee serves,” Tindall-Schlicht said.

While some of the decline can relate to supply chain and logistics issues, he said another “piece of this is many of the Trump era tariffs are still very much in play and causing some hardship here after years of being out there. We are still looking for some relaxation on some of those Trump era tariffs, and we hope the global trade community can come together and figure out a new paradigm as we go forward.”

Merrily, merrily Maryland

At the Port of Baltimore, “Big Red” is not just the name of a soda pop or chewing gum. It’s also the handle for a 167-foot long Manitowoc M250T crane at the port’s Dundalk Marine Terminal that can lift a staggering 200 metric tons. You’ll also find a Manitowoc GROVE GMK 7550 crane named ‘Yellow’ that can hoist 182 metric tons, as well as a heavy lift floating crane that can directly load heavy cargo from vessels to a barge, truck or railcar bed.

The terminal has direct rail access via CSX and is adjacent to the I-95 corridor and I-695 beltway. Indeed, the port boasts of having “the most cost-effective and efficient routing for the Mid-Atlantic region, the Midwest and beyond,” which explains why Baltimore ranks first among the nation’s ports for volume of autos and light trucks, ro-ro heavy farm and construction machinery and imported gypsum.

In the movement of vehicles, Baltimore has handled more autos and light trucks than any other U.S. port for 10 consecutive years, and the rebound from pandemic lows indicates continued strength in that category. In April, 34,672 autos and light trucks came across the port’s public docks, a tremendous 97% increase compared to the category’s pandemic low point in May 2020. In addition to new vehicles, the port also handles previously owned vehicles. In April, that category was also up 27% compared to the same month last year.

Public terminals at the port handled 85,405 tons of heavy machinery, up 73% compared to the category’s low point in June 2020 and a 30% increase compared to April of last year. Overall general cargo, with 937,439 tons, was up 28% compared to the category’s June 2020 low and up 7% year-over-year. 

K-Line, Nordana Line, NYK Bulkship, Höegh Autoliners, Grimaldi Lines, Westfal Larsen, Mitsui O.S.K. Lines, Atlantic Container Lines, Wallenius Wilhelmsen Logistics, Canada States Africa Line, and Atlantic Ro/Ro Carriers Bahri (the national shipping company of Saudi Arabia) are among the roll-on/roll-off breakbulk carriers that call on the port.

“Our cargo figures are bouncing back strong,” William Doyle, Maryland Department of Transportation Maryland Port Administration’s (MDOT MPA) executive director, says in a release. “Farming and construction are picking up once again, worldwide, and American-made equipment is being exported to global markets through the Port of Baltimore. We are also moving forward with rail and terminal infrastructure projects that will help generate thousands of jobs and grow our business for many years to come.”

Georgia peachy

Located about 18 miles inland on the Savannah River, the Port of Savannah has 16 private terminals that handle a variety of products, ranging from woodchips and liquid natural gas to paper goods and petroleum.

But the Georgia Ports Authority (GPA) also owns and operates Savannah’s Garden City Terminal and Ocean Terminal, with the latter primarily being a breakbulk facility with about 5,800 feet of contiguous dock space. Vehicles, heavy duty non-road equipment and other types of breakbulk cargo pass through Ocean Terminal.

In 2015, GPA implemented a new tracking system to more quickly process breakbulk cargo and provide real-time freight tracking for shippers moving cargo through the Port of Savannah. Then GPA Executive Director Curtis Foltz, who has since retired and been succeeded by Griff Lynch, said at the time, “The new system means faster service and better communication with our breakbulk customers.”

The Port of Brunswick is also a ro-ro, bulk and breakbulk facility that handled more than 685,000 units of vehicles and heavy machinery is fiscal year 2021 and contributed to the GPA seeing an 18% rise in total ro-ro volume compared to the previous year.

Port officials said the facilities saw a fast recovery from the global economic downturn of 2020.

To keep up with this unprecedented growth, GPA has accelerated its hiring efforts, bringing on nearly 150 new employees since January 2021. Many of these employees are being trained in jockey trucks, yard cranes and other equipment to handle growth at GPA’s facilities.