Thunder Bay shipping underway after ‘worst ice year ever’

CWB last fall made a deal to buy the grain handling and port assets of Toronto’s Upper Lakes Group, which included Winnipeg-based Mission Terminal and its 136,500-tonne capacity port facility at Thunder Bay. (PortOfThunderBay.com)

CNS Canada — Grain movement is finally underway at the Lake Superior port of Thunder Bay, Ont., after significant delays caused by a record cold winter.

The first ship arrived at Thunder Bay on April 21; usually the port opens on around March 25, according to Tim Heney, CEO for Thunder Bay Port Authority. “I think it’s been the worst ice year ever,” he said.

A large amount of grain was already at the port waiting to be loaded, due to the delayed start to the shipping season and backlog from the previous year, he said.

“It’s pretty plugged up now so things are behind,” he said. “There’s a surge of ships coming. There’s four in port right now, but there’s another 10 or 15 coming up so it’s going to be a busy time trying to clear that backlog for the next little while.”

Heney predicted Thunder Bay will be shipping a larger amount of grains than last season. Thunder Bay had shipped about 5.4 million tonnes of grain last year, down from 6.4 million in 2012, according to statistics from the port authority’s website.

“My guess is probably a million tonnes more than last year, if we’re lucky,” said Heney. “That’s some of the projections that I’m starting to hear.”

Once the ice is completely off the lake, he said, it should be smooth sailing from there.

The ice, he said, is “still in the harbour but we have an icebreaker here so it’s starting to go now, finally… But once that opens up things will be fine because the port has such a very large capacity that once it gets going it can clear up the backlog fairly quickly.”

There has been some shuffling in terminal ownership at Thunder Bay, Heney noted, including CWB’s arrival at the port, through its takeover of Mission Terminal in January. [Related story]

Last fall, Heney added, Richardson International has “opened one of the Viterra facilities that had been shut down since 2010. So that’s running right now at full capacity. That kind of doubled their capacity.”

Another change involved grain handler Parrish and Heimbecker buying half the Cargill grain terminal facility at Thunder Bay. The two companies announced their deal last May to operate the terminal as a joint venture, now called Superior Elevator.

Companies repositioning at Thunder Bay has been “kind of a rebound effect” following the deregulation of Prairie wheat and barley marketing and the end of the Canadian Wheat Board’s single desk in 2012, said Heney.

— Marney Blunt writes for Commodity News Service Canada, a Winnipeg company specializing in grain and commodity market reporting.

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