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Bulk and breakbulk ports get back to basics

While North America’s great ocean cargo gateways are heavily reliant on containerized throughput, major and minor ports alike are not letting go of their bulk and breakbulk operations. Indeed, many of them are coming to regard this basic piece of their portfolio as a value-added service.
By Patrick Burnson, Executive Editor
July 01, 2011

East Coast rivals
While the pace of global recovery is cooling, shipping activity through South Carolina’s ports remains up through the current fiscal year, according to port spokesman Byron Miller. He notes that breakbulk volume through the state’s ports—driven primarily by vehicle shipments from BMW and energy related projects—rose 40 percent from 551,000 tons last year to 773,000 tons this year.

Breakbulk tonnage in the Ports of Charleston and Georgetown was up more than 44 percent for the period July 2010 through February 2011, with 657,528 tons handled at the two ports in fiscal year 2011 compared to 455,449 tons handled during the same period the previous year, says Miller.

“Overall volume at South Carolina Ports (SCSPA) increased more than 12 percent from July through February,” he says, adding that the SCSPA anticipates continued, but moderate, growth through the year.

The North Carolina State Ports Authority—which like SCSPA is rightfully proud of its container operations—is aggressively growing it breakbulk operations, too. Breakbulk operations in Wilmington and Morehead City, for example, are up a combined 27 percent over the 2010 performance. This growth is a reflection of the strong global recovery in commodities such as wood pulp, shipped through Wilmington, and metal products and rubber imports, which are shipped via Morehead City.

“We anticipate continued growth in the coming months as new business comes online in Morehead City,” says Glenn Carlson, chief commercial officer of North Carolina State Ports Authority. “Additional dry fertilizer imports are supporting a strong spring performance, and we recently kicked off woodchip operations with regular exporting to begin in June,” he says.

According to Carlson, the authority expects continued moderate growth through the year.

Gulf leaders
When it comes to total bulk and breakbulk tonnage, The Port of Houston is among the nation’s leaders with steel comprising 70 percent of cargo passing though the Houston Ship Channel.
According to the Port of Houston Authority (PHA), more than two million tons of steel every year come across the docks as plate, pipe, coil, beam, with the remaining 30 percent coming in the form of forest products (imported plywood, newsprint), transformers, storage vessels (cylindrical tanks), or roll-on/roll-off cargo.

While it has yet to return to record numbers set two years ago, Houston’s numbers showed sustainable growth in 2010. “The public docks are expecting to see between 2.3 and 2.6 million tons with additional cargo moving through private terminals like Inbesa and Manchester Terminal,” says Patrick Seeba, an analyst with The Greater Houston Port Bureau.

The PHA estimates that it will move between 2.3 and 2.6 million inbound tons of steel this year, followed by 2.6 next year—for both years, they’re expecting 300,000 outbound tons of scrap steel. For non-steel breakbulk, PHA estimates 2 million tons of total traffic, or 75 percent, which is bound for export.

“Like all global shipping, the amount of breakbulk cargo coming through the Port of Houston was dramatically affected by the global recession in 2009,” says Seeba. “While the first quarter of 2010 showed a nearly 71 percent decline in steel coming across the city docks, year-to-date numbers show a steady climb back to normal tonnage.”

Zepol, a leading trade intelligence company based in Minnesota, notes that Houston’s gulf neighbor is growing its bulk and breakbulk business, too. According to Paul Rasmussen, Zepol Corporation’s CEO and president, metric inbound tonnage of “non-containerized goods” at the Port of New Orleans has been impressive.

“Like Savannah and Norfolk, New Orleans has made substantial gains,” says Rasmussen. “This reflects widespread diversification.”

No better example of this “diversification” in New Orleans is the $25 million dockside refrigerated terminal slated to open next month. The new terminal, to be operated by poultry exporter New Orleans Cold Storage, (NOCS) operates a similar dockside refrigerated warehouse, capable of freezing more than 500 tons of food products daily, at the port’s Jourdan Road Terminal.

The new 140,000-square-foot warehouse will be able to store approximately 175,000 tons of product, primarily poultry, at temperatures between -15 degrees and 40 degrees Fahrenheit and blast-freeze 600 tons of product in 20 hours or less.

But the advances in this breakbulk operation did not come without a major funding effort. Nearly $24 million was given by the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery Program of the Louisiana Office of Community Development—Disaster Recovery Unit. “When it comes to economic development, actions speak louder than words,” says NOCS president Mark Blanchard. “As we worked to rebuild our business over the last five years, we got lots of help from our government leaders.”

About the Author

Patrick Burnson
Executive Editor

Patrick Burnson is executive editor for Logistics Management and Supply Chain Management Review magazines and web sites. Patrick is a widely-published writer and editor who has spent most of his career covering international trade, global logistics, and supply chain management. He lives and works in San Francisco, providing readers with a Pacific Rim perspective on industry trends and forecasts. You can reach him directly at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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