Port of Lewiston sees its container shipping drop to lowest levels in years

The Port of Lewiston’s container shipments declined to the worst level in more than two decades in 2014, and port officials are blaming a union labor disagreement and a contracted operator of the Port of Portland’s container terminal.

Lewiston port employees handled 3,240 containers in 2014, said Manager David Doeringsfeld at a Wednesday port commissioner meeting.

That’s fewer than the 3,653 containers they moved in 2011, which had been the worst year on record since 1991, according to numbers on the port’s website.

Bulk grain was significantly stronger, with 659,169 tons leaving the Lewis-Clark Terminal, a port tenant, in 2014. That figure compares with a high of 952,599 tons in 1995 and a low of 382,606 in 2008, according to figures from the port’s website that go back to 1991.

One of the biggest problems is an inability to get empty containers from the Port of Portland so they can be filled with goods in Lewiston and barged down the Snake and Columbia rivers to Portland, where they are transferred to ocean-going ships, Doeringsfeld said.

Jennifer Sargent, a union spokeswoman in San Francisco, said Wednesday in an email that the union and the contracted operator of the container terminal, ICTSI Oregon, have nothing to do with how many empty containers the Port of Lewiston receives.

What the Port of Lewiston encountered in December was typical of what happened the entire year, Doeringsfeld said. Twice the port received a significantly lower number of empty containers than what it ordered. In one instance, for example, the port got 31 instead of 70. Had the containers been available, the port would have had plenty of business to fill them, Doeringsfeld said.

The situation is such that empty containers are being sent by truck this week from Salt Lake City instead of using the normal river barging route.

The problem dates back to 2011, when ICTSI won a 25-year lease to operate the Port of Portland’s container terminal, Doeringsfeld said.

ICTSI and union labor have been at odds, and within the last year, the situation has been complicated further by union negotiations that involve all the West Coast ports, Doeringsfeld said.

The Port of Portland and ICTSI are monitoring the situation closely, said Josh Thomas, a spokesman for the Port of Portland, in an email. “Some factors remain outside of our control, but we are committed to doing all we can to ensure dependable and efficient operations. We will continue working with shippers, ports and barge operators.”

One of the biggest customers of the port’s containers, Dean Brocke, said at Wednesday’s meeting he agrees with Doeringsfeld’s assessment.

“No matter what the problems are, none of them lie with the Port of Lewiston,” said Brocke, president of George Brocke and Sons, a dried pea, lentil and garbanzo bean processor in Kendrick. Once a new labor agreement is reached, Brocke and Doeringsfeld both said they expect significant improvement.

In other business:

  • The port discussed imposing a proposed $25 charge on each rail car entering the port district. The issue emerged after a wheel on a rail car slipped from a track at the port. The cost of repairing the track and getting the car back on the rail was $3,500, and there’s other deferred maintenance issues on tracks at the port.
  • Port officials are examining the possibility of constructing a fiber optic network. The Port of Lewiston has been working with the Port of Whitman County on the project. The Port of Whitman County pioneered a model where it builds the network and then leases space on it to private businesses, which sell services to customers. At least two businesses are interested in using whatever infrastructure the port might develop, said Douglas Mattoon, executive director of Valley Vision, an economic development group.

Williams may be contacted at [email protected] or (208) 848-2261.