Winds of Prosperity

Breakbulk ports benefit from the high cost of container shipping and the growth of offshore wind.

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Published Oct 2, 2022 12:25 PM by Tom Peters

(Article originally published in July/Aug 2022 edition.)

The winds of prosperity in marine cargo may be shifting even further toward the breakbulk, heavylift and project cargo sectors as more shippers move cargo out of containers and into breakbulk because of supply chain challenges. The growing development of wind energy means added momentum because there’s a lot of equipment and parts to move.

While the Port of Virginia is predominantly a container port, its breakbulk, heavylift and project cargoes are putting a little bounce in the port’s step and providing diversification, says port spokesman Joe Harris. Virginia’s Portsmouth Marine Terminal (PMT) and Newport News Marine Terminal (NNMT) have been long-time, multi-use facilities and, to the port’s benefit, the PMT facility is evolving into an offshore logistics hub for mid-Atlantic wind energy development, leaving Newport News to handle all other project cargo.

Harris says the port is turning much of PMT over to private companies with a piece of the action in the offshore wind business, so there’s lots of construction going on: “The biggest thing you will see is the development of a blade-finishing facility on the terminal and also berth improvements to handle heavy lift. In the next two years that terminal will completely change.”

One company, Dominion Energy, has two test wind turbines operating about 24 miles off the coast of Virginia Beach. It’s going to add several hundred more turbines to that project, which will be serviced out of PMT, adding a significant increase in heavylift and project cargo.

Over the past year, Virginia’s breakbulk cargo is up 47 percent. “A lot of what we’re seeing,” says Harris, “is cargo that normally could move in containers but is now moving on pallets because container rates are tight, slots are tight and containers are tight.”

Virginia is handling a lot of steel and lumber and equipment to support the solar industry in addition to big power-generation equipment like generators. Large project cargo includes a massive tunnel-boring machine and support equipment for digging two new commuter tunnels that will run parallel to existing tunnels.

The Port of Virginia’s overall cargo business will also benefit from the completion of the widening and deepening to at least 55 feet of the port’s commercial shipping channel. The $450 million project is expected to be completed in 2024.

Volume Growth

Farther down the Atlantic coast, the George Port Authority (GPA) handles an array of breakbulk commodities including iron and steel, machinery, forest products, rubber, boats and vehicles. For the fiscal year-to-date (July-May), GPA handled a total of 2.8 million tons of breakbulk cargo, up more than 16 percent.

Mayor’s Point Terminal in Brunswick has seen phenomenal growth in the export of forest products to Europe. Wood pulp and liner board have grown from 30,400 tons through May of the previous fiscal year to 193,140 tons over the same period this year.

Ocean Terminal in Savannah has also seen strong growth across multiple commodities with breakbulk imports growing from 832,910 tons in the first 11 months of FY 2021 to 1,116,901 tons this year. The biggest gainer was imported iron and steel from Korea and Europe, which saw an increase of nearly 50 percent.

Much of the increase in breakbulk crossing GPA’s docks is related to container pricing and the relatively lower cost of breakbulk movement as well as to the fact GPA terminals in Brunswick have the capacity to take on additional trade. Warehouse space at Mayor’s Point currently totals 355,000 square feet will grow with the pending replacement of a 50,000 square-foot building with a new, 100,000 square-foot warehouse. GPA is also adding 560,000 square feet of storage space at its Colonel’s Island autoport, which serves the vehicle and heavy machinery trade.

Over on the Gulf Coast, the Port of Galveston is also adding acreage in anticipation of future volume growth. Pending final approval and acceptable financing, it’s moving forward with two projects totaling about $50 million to expand acreage and infrastructure at the West Port Cargo Complex.

By 2024, Galveston plans to fill two outdated slips to gain nearly 20 acres of additional space, extend rail to the waterfront for direct ship-to-rail cargo transfers and increase dock space by 2,200 linear feet. In addition to long-term cargo growth, the improvements are expected to generate over 400 new construction jobs, $23 million in wages and nearly $2 million in state and local taxes.

Dragline Buckets

In Florida, breakbulk and project cargo activity continues to be very strong at Port Tampa Bay. “For the first six months of the fiscal year,” says Wade Elliott, the port’s Vice President, Business Development, “our steel business is up by 110 percent and forest products by 104 percent. Strong population growth continues to drive this business, fueling demand for construction and building materials with Florida’s population now at 22 million residents.”

Port Tampa Bay is Florida’s largest port for handling steel with many companies located both in the port and throughout the Tampa Bay region involved in the fabrication, manufacturing, processing and distribution of steel products. Other new breakbulk business includes racking used in solar panel installations, bagged cement, resins and palletized produce.

On the project cargo/heavy lift side, Port Tampa Bay recently received several very large dragline buckets used by The Mosaic Company for its phosphate fertilizer mining operations throughout Central Florida. Headquartered in Tampa, Mosaic is a Fortune 500 company and one of the world’s leading producers and exporters of phosphate and potash.

On the West Coast, San Diego has added to its breakbulk portfolio through a five-year agreement with US Ocean, the largest Jones Act heavylift carrier. The deal will see six vessel calls a year through June of 2027.

“This specialty breakbulk carrier fits perfectly with the strategic portfolio at the port’s Tenth Avenue Marine Terminal,” says Greg Borossay, Principal, Maritime Business Development. The cargo includes heavy military equipment, steel for NASSCO (National Steel and Shipbuilding Company), 53-foot containers and various military-support cargo.

Saga Welco AS, an international shipping company headquartered in Norway with a branch office in Savannah, is testing the U.S. market, signing a short-term contract with the Port of San Diego. The contract calls for a monthly vessel service that includes a mix of cargo including steel coils, pipe, H-beams (steel joists or girders) and 53-foot containers.

San Diego has bolstered its lift capabilities through the purchase of two new all-electric Konecranes Gottwald Mobile Harbor Cranes, which will enter service next year.

Saved by the Dredge!

The Port of Morgan City, located on the Louisiana Gulf Coast at the intersection of the Atchafalaya River and the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, is getting a boost from the operation of specialty dredge equipment from Brice Civil Constructors of Anchorage, Alaska. The operation on the Atchafalaya River is keeping a vital river channel open that previously had been plagued by severe infilling rates of liquid mud called “fluff.”

The new dredge equipment has exceeded expectations, pumping over five million yards of fluff per month. In January 2022, the dredge reached a 250-foot width at a 20-foot depth. As such, the port offers a viable alternative for shippers utilizing shallow-to-medium draft vessels.

It also offers a multimodal transportation network with waterway access in four directions: the recently dredged channel from Morgan City south to the Gulf of Mexico, the four-lane US Hwy 90 (future I-49), and BNSF & Union Pacific Class 1 rail service. The port is ideally situated to ship and receive cargo throughout the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean.

Recently, Morgan City participated in maritime roundtable discussions with several other regional ports, industry partners and government representatives to explore new opportunities for Atchafalaya and Red River ports to increase waterway traffic. The goal is to grow the bottom line for agribusiness, forestry, chemical industries and shippers of other commodities in the state of Louisiana and throughout the inland river system.

Garden State

The South Jersey Port Corporation (SJPC), based in Camden, is a national leader in bulk and breakbulk cargoes, shipping and receiving to and from Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe. Its three ports on the Delaware River – Camden, Paulsboro and Salem – handle more than four million tons of bulk, breakbulk and containerized cargoes annually. Its terminals closed out 2021 with record cargo volume of 4,636,097 tons, a 54 percent increase over 2020.

“That’s the best in the history of the South Jersey ports,” notes Executive Director & CEO Andy Saporito, “and we’re expecting 2022 to be a very strong year that may top 2021.”

The dramatic increase in tonnage came from nearly all of SJPC’s prime cargo sectors: steel, plywood, recycled metals, cocoa beans, cement and gypsum. Rebounding steel imports led the way with 2,399,076 tons, a 141 percent increase over 2020. The majority of the increase occurred at the Paulsboro Marine Terminal, which moved 1,760,018 tons of steel slabs.

Plywood import tonnage nearly doubled, totaling 220,812 tons and positioning Camden as a premier plywood portal on the East Coast. Cocoa beans were up 36 percent while exports of recycled metals grew 10 percent and cement eight percent.

Brendan Dugan, SJPC’s Assistant Executive Director & Director of Business Development, expects cargo activity to remain strong for the foreseeable future due to the national infrastructure plan and New Jersey’s leadership role in the $109 billion offshore wind industry. And speaking of wind, Germany-based EEW Group is building a $300 million manufacturing plant at the Paulsboro Marine Terminal to provide the massive steel monopiles for the offshore wind farms. The plant will ultimately require 150,000 tons of imported steel annually to meet demand.

To build on this momentum, SJPC is conducting a feasibility study at the port of Salem, down river from Paulsboro, that could become an important feeder port for the local offshore wind support industry. 

Halifax-based Tom Peters is the magazine’s ports columnist.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.