International trade is a fickle business, and no more so than in China. The near collapse of its burgeoning trade economy in the 1990s had Canadian shippers shifting their business back to traditional U.S. markets, where it would remain until the Asian economy rebounded a decade later.
But beyond the varying market conditions, shippers already had their eyes trained on something else; namely, container ships, the key elements in the entire offshore shipping scenario. These were now the shipping mode of choice, representing a real opportunity for those few North American ports with the capacity to handle the vessel’s massive dimensions.
Other ports, like Prince Rupert, says Shaun Stevenson, Vice-president of Trade Development and Public Affairs for the Prince Rupert Port Authority, could only look on with envy.
“We couldn’t participate in that business so it meant changing to meet the evolving needs of shippers and exporters in Canada, but also creating new capacities where the growth opportunity was,” says Stevenson.
Prince Rupert’s unique position in North America seemed to make increased trade with Asia a no-brainer. Up to a day-and-a- half closer to Asia than Los Angeles and Seattle with the deepest natural harbour on the continent, the port knew it could compete. Problem was its main Fairview Terminal consisted of a traditional general cargo and break bulk terminals. It had to expand, and expand quickly.
Build it bigger, built it better…
The announcement came in April 2005: The Port of Prince Rupert would convert its Fairview Terminal into an intermodal container shipping terminal, with a major expansion of the port’s wharf and investments in rail infrastructure connecting Toronto, Montreal and Chicago to Asian markets.
Under Phase One, public and private sector investors would contribute $170 million to increase the terminal’s design capacity to 500,000 TEUs (6.2-m equivalent units).
Designs complete, construction crews set to increasing the dock area to 56 hectares by stripping out about a metre of the terminal’s existing surface area, laying down a new sub base and fresh paving.
The biggest challenge, says Lorne Keller, Vice-president of Project Development for the Prince Rupert Port Authority: the weather.
“While you’re moving all that material around you’ve got a lot of rain. Sediment controls and those sorts of things were a major construction challenge,” says Keller.
The biggest challenge on the design side was extending the berth. The 15-metre draft alongside the existing berth was insufficient for the 12,000 TEU container vessels the port hoped to attract.
A decision was made to push the berth face out 20 metres into deeper water and increase the draft from 4.7 to 5.6 metres. Solid rock provided a stable foundation in which to anchor the pylons, says Keller.
“The last few metres we ran into some fractured rock, which was a bit of an installation issue, but other than that it went really smoothly.”
Under Phase Two of the expansion, the existing terminal will grow north and south, quadrupling its capacity. That will require extending the terminal area to the northern tip of Fairview Terminal and underwater blasting.
“We’re still going to have the eighteen and a half meters alongside from the berth face back towards the shore, but it’s a relatively shallow piece of property. So it’ll be easier to work in,” says Keller.
Currently, container ship cargo at Prince Rupert is offloaded using three 1,800 tonne super post panamax cranes with a reach of 22 containers. Up to 10 cranes will be on site at the completion of the Phase Two expansion, says Keller.
“So they’ll have options. If there’s only one vessel, they can have four to five cranes working that vessel if they want.”
Assuming environmental and commercial conditions make it practical to proceed, the northern expansion will begin construction this fall, says Keller. This will add an additional berth and increase the number of vessel calls per week to 10.
How much container activity has the expansion generated so far? Plenty, says Shaun Stevenson. In fact, the terminal has enjoyed record-breaking growth from approximately four million tonnes to 20 million tonnes in the past four to five years. Today, major shippers Cosco and Hanjin Shipping of the CKYH Alliance operate three weekly import services into Prince Rupert – delivering everything from auto parts to consumer-based electronics.
“Outbound we’re seeing forest and agriculture products and mineral concentrates,” says Stevenson. It’s a trend he sees continuing: “We expect to push the number of containers again this year and set another record.”
More efficient on and off site…
If port officials undertook ambitious tasks under Phase One, their plans for Phase Two are downright Herculean. When it’s completed in 2013, the container terminal will quadruple to two million TEU capacity, making it the second largest handling facility on the West Coast.
Included in those ambitious plans is expansion of Ridley Island Terminal, called by port officials “a world leader” in the transportation of coal from unit trains onto ships. By the middle of last year, Ridley Terminal had enjoyed a whopping 21 per cent increase in activity, placing added pressure on Ridley Terminals Inc. to expand.
“They’re well underway in terms of their expansion,” says Keller. “They’ve cleared their 35 acre parcel east of their existing storage yard so some time next year they’ll be able to extend their operations into that area and increase their storage capacity.”
A fully automated facility, the 55 hectare terminal loads at an hourly rate of 9,000 tonnes of mostly metallurgical and thermal coal, but also petroleum coke and wood pellets. With an annual shipping capacity for coal of 12 million tonnes and storage capacity of 1.2 million tonnes, the port expects its shipping capacity to grow to 24 million tonnes. A big help will be the two-car barrel dumper installed in December, with a stacker reclaimer to be installed some time next year.
Before that could happen, crews first had to prepare the new 35 acre storage site; their main obstacle – heavy, water-laden muskeg. “Trying to scoop up water with a back hoe is a bit of a challenge,” Lorne Keller chuckles. “It’s highly saturated, so you’re moving as much water as you are dirt.” Keller estimates contractor Arctic Construction from Fort St. John, B.C. had 60 work vehicles on site to remove the overburden, including up to 40 rock trucks and about a dozen back hoes.
By job’s end, crews had removed about 300,000 m3 of overburden, depositing it at the port’s organic disposal site.
With the overburden gone, contractors are now blasting rock within the high points of the site, then crushing it and using it as a sub base to create the new storage yard.
Of course it’s one thing to increase storage and loading capacity, quite another to make sure trucks can get on and off the new site. Currently, truck traffic travels through Prince Rupert’s downtown core. The answer is a brand new $90-million Road Rail Utility Corridor, consisting of three inbound and two outbound tracks for coal, potash and other bulk terminal developments. Two additional tracks will form a loop around the main part of Ridley Island and one new track will extend off the rail loop toward Ridley Terminals.
“This will introduce a whole new level of efficiency to our container-handling processes,” says Stevenson, “and further integrate the existing coal and grain facilities on Ridley Island.”
Road construction is set to begin this summer, with the corridor open for business in 2014. Even more exciting are future possibilities for the Ridley Terminal, says Stevenson. The port is waiting on an investment decision by Canpotex Terminal Ltd for co
nstruction of a potash export terminal, a decision Stevenson says is imminent.
Put this in your pipe…
Much has also been made by reports about Enbridge Inc.’s plans to possibly ship oil from Alberta to container ships on B.C.’s coast.
Environmentalists, and many First Nations, staunchly oppose building the pipeline, but what seems to have fallen below their radar is the enormous interest in Liquified Natural Gas (LNG). In fact, no fewer than eight project proposals have been announced for new LNG facilities in north eastern B.C., mostly in or around Kitimat.
According to Shaun Stevenson, however, “there’s a lot more going on in the LNG space than Kitimat.”
“BG Group is the second or third largest player in the world in LNG. They’re in their first phase of their site assessment and project feasibility work for an LBG site at Ridley.”
The Port has provided BG Group with 200 acres to help it advance the LNG project, says Stevenson. As for oil, the port has a broad mandate to support Canada’s trade agenda which has resulted in all kinds of terminal proposals developments, he says.
His port could provide “a solution” for Canada’s oil sector “as is being contemplated right now with the Northern Gateway Project that Enbridge is pursuing with Kitimat.”
“If that is a capacity that is going to be required on the B.C. coast, then there’s no doubt you’d look at Prince Rupert as one of the safest places to do that.”
The one hitch could be Prince Rupert City Council. In late February, Council voted unanimously to formally oppose the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline, the third northern local government to do so.
Is Shaun Stevenson still bullish about the port’s future? Unquestionably. He calls the outlook for the Port of Prince Rupert “extraordinary.”
“That’s in the growth that we see happening in our existing terminal, but also in capital investments that are starting to line up. In the next six to seven years we could see in excess of $10 billion in capital expansion.”
Lorne Keller is just as excited going to his job every day as Shaun Stevenson.
“I certainly am. It’s not often you can work in a port that’s expanding and creating an enhanced gateway for goods between North America and Asia.”