Ebbing Tides At Port Of Wilmington

By Vince Winkel, posted Nov 4, 2016
Wood pellets from Enviva’s recently built storage domes at the Port of Wilmington will soon begin exportation to Europe for energy production. (Photo by Chris Brehmer)
Two words: wood pellets.

They are buzzwords at the Wilmington port these days.

That’s because cargo ships will soon begin hauling this North Carolina export out of Wilmington and across the big pond to Europe. The waste wood product will end up as fuel for large municipal boilers across the continent, where wood is increasingly replacing coal as a means of producing heat and electricity.

Moving those pellets through the pair of massive new Enviva storage domes that tower over the houses along Burnett Boulevard caps off a year of growth here, which is something very high on the list of N.C. State Ports Authority Executive Director Paul Cozza.

“What we do is not just about pushing cargo, it really isn’t,” Cozza said. “It is what the port does for economic development; it’s about increasing exports.”

As the wood pellets start their journey, the port is also seeing a boost from the larger post-Panamex ships sailing in. This additional activity comes at a time when Wilmington and other ports have been forced to deal with a deficit caused by the recent bankruptcy of Hanjin, one of the world’s largest shipping container lines.

Bigger Boats

“We continue to prove we are big ship ready and are excited that container carriers, like Evergreen, recognize the advantages North Carolina has to offer,” Cozza said.

That’s Evergreen as in the Evergreen Ever Laden, which called on port Sept. 10. At a capacity of about 8,500 TEUs, the Ever Laden is now the largest ship to ever call the Port of Wilmington.

TEU, or 20-foot equivalent unit, is the standard unit for describing a ship’s cargo-carrying capacity, with 20-foot and 40-foot containers being the most common international container sizes.

The ship measured 1,099 feet in length and 150 feet in width, which would have been too big a year ago. But this summer a turning basin project, which included the removal of an existing bulk pier and dredging along the Cape Fear River, expanded the basin from 1,200 feet to 1,400 feet.

It’s all part of the N.C. Ports’ ongoing infrastructure investment plan, allowing Wilmington to host the larger post-Panamax vessels.

“I think we’ve moved beyond the era when we simply wish for an easy solution to turning the Port of Wilmington into a Norfolk or a Charleston overnight,” said Scott Satterfield of Wilmington Business Development. “That’s not realistic. But what is possible – and port leaders are doing this – is playing on the Port of Wilmington’s unique advantages in a way that sparks synergies with the region’s and the state’s economy.”

Exports through Wilmington have grown consistently over the past 10 years, led by forest products, chemicals, wood pulp and food. Exports make up 52 percent of the activities at Wilmington, with 48 percent being imports.

That’s more balanced than overall U.S. port activity, which as of early 2016 was 41 percent export and 59 percent import, according to Piers Data, an outfit which monitors imports and exports through ports.

Total tonnage through Wilmington also has grown.

In 2015, some 4.6 million tons of goods passed through the port, compared to 3.4 million tons in 2006.

Making Up For Hanjin

The port has not been without recent challenges. In August the world’s seventh-largest shipper, South Korean shipping company Hanjin, fled for bankruptcy protection.

The N.C. State Ports Authority relied on Hanjin for between 7 and 8 percent of its annual revenue, or about $3 million, and its routes to and from Asia, according to the ports authority.

Since then, Hanjin has been selling off businesses, while its ships have remained at sea waiting for permission to unload cargo.

Hanjin is the first major shipping line to be dragged down by global industry overcapacity and low freight rates. The firm had total debt of $5.4 billion, according to court filings.

“The short-term impact is logistical. We just had a Hanjin ship sail in, that was initially due Aug. 30, but because of the Hanjin situation had still been at sea,” Cozza explained. “We need to get their cargo in and then out. Within the next 30 days, we should be finished with that process.”

On Oct. 31, officials announced a new partnership with Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) and Maersk Line with the addition of the TP10 all-water Asia-U.S. East Coast container service at the Wilmington port. The TP10’s rotation includes port calls in Qingdao, Xingang, Ningbo, Shanghai and Busan in Asia, and helps fill the void left by the Hanjin bankruptcy.

The new service has the fastest coverage from Asia to Wilmington and is the only service offering direct linkage to the U.S. East Coast into and out of Xingang, Cozza said.

Meanwhile the new Queen City Express, an intermodal rail service between the port and CSX’s intermodal terminal in Charlotte, should be running up the tracks in a matter of weeks, officials said.

The Express will be the only direct freight rail service into the greater Charlotte area from a North Carolina port.

“It’s all about being intermodal. We do rail now, but in bulk. Now we’ll be able to ship containers by rail,” Cozza said. “We have truck service to Charlotte.

But the Queen City Express will improve shipping times and capacity.”

“The port is a critical part of internal trade in North Carolina,” said John Loyack, vice president of global business services at the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina. “Having our port system is a huge benefit and advantage for local manufacturers in the state.”

The port is also home to Port of Wilmington Cold Storage, which opened Aug. 26. The cold storage facility boasts 101,000 square feet of space, which plays well for a state that ranks in the national top five in poultry, pork, turkey and sweet potato production – all of which require refrigeration.

“The improvements at the port signify greater opportunities to access global markets,” said Sebastian Montagne, a strategic planner with the N.C. Department of Transportation. “Considering the ports already contribute more than $14 billion a year to the state’s economy, the recent infrastructure investments and enhanced foreign trade capabilities make me very excited for what’s in store for the state in the coming years.”
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