Grim shipping news floats upstream, Lewiston Tribune, May 21, 2016

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Port of Portland’s container service hits zero, and it will affect ports in L-C Valley

Already diminished container service at the Port of Portland is evaporating in a setback that river users in north central Idaho are dismissing as symbolic.

Westwood Shipping is making its last call on the Port of Portland today. It was the only container carrier that stopped regularly at the Oregon port and carried a fraction of the volume major shippers hauled. The last of those, Hapag-Lloyd, departed a year ago.

“There aren’t any shippers in our area using (Westwood Shipping),” Lewiston Port Manager David Doeringsfeld said. “It’s still a bad piece of news.”

That view is shared by Peter Klaiber, vice president of marketing for the U.S.A. Dry Pea and Lentil Council in Moscow.

“This is not an ideal situation,” he said. “I would much (rather) the Port of Portland was vigorously back in the container business and gave us another option.”

Portland’s container service has been critical to the Port of Lewiston and is used primarily by the dried pea and lentil industry to control transportation costs. The agricultural commodities are loaded onto barges at Idaho’s only seaport and ferried down the Snake and Columbia rivers before being transferred to ocean-going vessels in Portland.

That cargo is now being barged to the Port of Morrow in Oregon, where it’s moved to trains that take it to Puget Sound ports. That route has been subsidized with $50,000 from the Port of Portland and optimally can handle 50 to 70 percent of the container cargo that moves through Lewiston. The remaining cargo is traveling via trucks.

Those stop-gap measures will likely be the only options for the immediate future. Officials at the Port of Lewiston and the Port of Portland don’t believe container traffic will resume any time soon.

“In my opinion, it’s two years before you’ll see container steamship service back,” Doeringsfeld said. “That’s an optimistic prediction.”

The problems facing the Port of Portland’s container service are multifaceted. Hapag-Lloyd withdrew because of a conflict between management and labor at Portland, and Doeringsfeld said no progress is being made on that issue.

An effort is underway behind the scenes, said Keith Leavitt, chief commercial officer for the Port of Portland.

“We do believe we need a resolution of those issues to bring back container service,” he said.

Low rates and overcapacity in the container vessel industry, not labor/management conflicts, were the reasons behind Westwood Shipping’s withdrawal, according to Jennifer Sargent Bokaie, a spokeswoman for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

“Longshore workers are continuing to work on auto ships, bulk cargo and other terminals at the Port of Portland,” she said in an email.

The company under contract with the Port of Portland to handle its container operations, ICTSI, had no comment for this story.

The Port of Portland’s challenges are happening at a time when the container carrier companies are in transition, Leavitt said.

Historically, the Port of Portland has only handled 2 to 4 percent of the container volume on the West Coast, Leavitt said. The majority of the business has been going to the ports of Seattle, Tacoma, Long Beach, Los Angeles and Oakland, which have deep draft harbors.

In contrast, vessels docking at the Port of Portland have to navigate 105 miles up the Columbia River from the Pacific Ocean, Leavitt said.

Making the situation even tougher, container carriers started constructing larger ships, some so massive they can’t go up the Columbia River. Leavitt said that leaves the Port of Portland only able to handle about 35 percent of the world’s fleet of container vessels.

“Container rates on vessels are at an all-time low,” Doeringsfeld said. “It’s good for the shipper and bad for the steamship lines. They’re having to consolidate services where they can to save on costs.”

In that uncertain environment, Leavitt said alliances among steamship lines are changing so rapidly that it’s not necessarily clear which ones are the best fit for the Port of Portland.

“We’re staying close to the industry,” he said. “We’re just keeping an eye on that situation.”

While the Port of Portland scrambles, the Port of Lewiston is recruiting new customers who would use its dock, but not containers.

About six possibilities have emerged, such as barging wood pellets to Portland, Doeringsfeld said. North central Idaho pellet manufacturers want to get their product to the West Coast and then to overseas buyers.|

At the same time, other types of cargo are moving from the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley to Portland in the absence of container service. The Lewis-Clark Terminal in Lewiston and Columbia Grain at the Port of Wilma west of Clarkston put grain on bulk vessels.

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