Bulk Cargo Ports Valuable to the Community

The Annual Community Day at the Port of Saint John.

The Annual Community Day at the Port of Saint John.

By B.C. Manion

When Jim Quinn arrived at the Saint John Port Authority four years ago, he began making the rounds to identify his priorities.

Essentially, Quinn asked: “What advice would you have for me as the new CEO? What are your thoughts, your observations of how the port operates and what its role should be?”

Those discussions led to creation of an inclusion model that’s based on the premise that port stakeholders and the community, as a whole, have a right to expect to be part of the port’s planning process, Quinn said.

The model includes a number of committees representing expertise of those who occupy port space, but also includes broader community and government representatives.

“We bring them together and talk about what they feel are priorities and what they feel are strategic directions we should be moving in,” Quinn said.

That input goes to the port’s board, enabling it to make more informed policy decisions, he said.

The idea is that the port is a community asset that people need to be involved with, to help plan its forward movement, Quinn said.

“I grew up just up the street from the port. The whole family was engaged with the port, and for generations that has been the case. When I was a kid, every family would talk around the dinner table about what’s happening at the port. Everybody knew what was going on. There was a lot of employment, a lot of jobs. Everybody was engaged. Whether your aunt, uncle, brother, neighbor – everybody knew somebody that worked at the port.”

Changes over time have lessened that personal connection, but the port in Saint John, New Brunswick, is engaged in numerous efforts to bolster its community ties.

Four years ago, it added a Community Day to its annual Port Days. The day features public tours, fun family activities and low-cost refreshments, which are sold to raise money to help schools in impoverished neighborhoods. First-year attendance was around 3,000; this year, it was about 10,000.

The port and a local station of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation work together to put on Harbor Lights during the holidays to raise money for area food banks. The port also provides curriculum – approved by the school board – that incorporates content about the port in lessons designed for third- through eighth-graders. Talks at local service clubs are another part of the port’s effort to increase public understanding of the important role it plays in the region’s economy.

“This is the largest petroleum port in the Canadian Port Authority system. We do anywhere from 28 to 30 million metric tons of petroleum products per year,” Quinn said. “We’re also the endpoint for the recently announced intention to build what they’re calling an Energy East Pipeline. The plan would have oil coming east beginning in 2018. In 2019, the bulk of the oil would come into St. John’s, both for refining purposes and for export purposes.”

But much remains to be done before that becomes a reality.

“There are lots of bridges to be crossed going forward,” Quinn said.

The port likes to tout its tremendous growth in its container activity in recent years.

“The only way you are going to be self-sufficient is doing what you can to be sure you have a diversified business base,” Quinn said. “That willingness of the community to accept increased business within the port has a direct impact on our bottom line, which is important in our ability to maintain one of Canada’s oldest ports.”

Sharing information about port plans and activities is crucial, agreed Martin Callery, chief commercial officer at the Oregon International Port of Coos Bay.

The port is not an operating port authority, meaning that it doesn’t own or operate marine terminals, Callery said.

“Our function is to provide transportation connections to the free market. That’s what we do,” Callery said.

“We, quite frankly, have an underutilized harbor. We’re looking for ways to find additional commodities to move through the terminals,” Callery said.

The port acquired a 134-mile railroad line that had been shut down, in order to restore a connection to the North American railroad system.

“We knew that without rail we weren’t going to have much of a future as a maritime commerce center,” he said. “It was controversial because some people didn’t see that as an appropriate role of the port district or port authority,” he said.

But the port helped give the issue greater context by talking about the jobs that depend on a multi-modal transportation system, Callery said.

A proposed coal terminal at Coos Bay also aroused controversy. Some embraced the potential for jobs associated with the new bulk terminal, while others adamantly opposed the potential coal project, Callery said.

“The multi-party venture decided for a variety of reasons to table the project for awhile,” Callery said. “We may or may not hear from them again.”

A proposed Liquefied Natural Gas terminal is now going through a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approval process. Like the coal project, there are opponents.

If it moves ahead, it would result in 6 million additional tons of cargo through the harbor and a substantial number of new jobs, Callery said.

The port sometimes requests proposals to identify the best candidate to move a bulk cargo terminal project forward, but it makes it abundantly clear to those submitting proposals that they must meet regulatory requirements, Callery said. Port officials also provide relevant information on projects to the public.

“You bring in a group of scientists. They’re there to answer questions. They’re not there to debate the politics or debate the science,” Callery said. “We present as many sides of an issue as we possibly can and then it’s up to our board of commissioners to make a decision. Our commissioners have always taken the position, ‘We need to enhance maritime commerce here,’ knowing that there is always that regulatory burden that a project proponent has got to deal with.

“If it is decided by the regulatory agency that this is not the appropriate place or they can’t meet the permitting requirements – air quality, water quality, whatever it is – then that stops the project. If they can meet those, it’s not our job to inhibit that type of industrial development or industrial commerce,” he added.

The Port of Grays Harbor – established in 1911 in Aberdeen, Washington – is the largest soybean exporter on the West Coast, said Gary Nelson, executive director. It is also the largest car export facility on the West Coast.

The port’s changing skyline is an obvious sign of the port’s value, Nelson said.

“Almost all of that investment is private. The port still owns the dock, the rail and the land, but our tenants – our customers – make the investments in the silos and tanks and conveyors and all of the equipment that they need to handle their dry bulk products,” he said.

A less obvious benefit to the public is the positive impact that private investments at the port have on the local tax base, Nelson said.

The port uses a monthly electronic newsletter, annual presentations to city councils in the nine cities within the countywide port district and talks at local service organizations to help communicate its value to the public. It also has compiled a recap of its 2013 activities to help share its story, and it expects to release an economic impact study soon.

Public tours during the summer and an annual tour for fourth-graders also help people gain insight about the port’s contributions, Nelson said. About a month before the fourth-graders visit, the port sends out curriculum written by a retired teacher that acquaints students to the port through history, mathematics, vocabulary and reading lessons.

“We found out that the most effective way is to get them while they’re young,” Nelson said.

Then, after their visit, “when they’re sitting at the rail crossing, waiting for a train to go by, they can tell their parents what kind of car that is – whether it’s a hopper car, or a tank car, or an auto rack or whatever it happens to be,” Nelson said.  “They know what’s coming or going.”

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