More Ships, Less Cargo at Toledo’s Port in 2019

Source: Toledo Blade

A poor grain harvest and a drop-off in dry-bulk cargoes at the Port of Toledo were mostly offset by surging iron-ore business and an upswing in liquid-bulk shipments during 2019, data from the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority show.

The net result was a slight, 2.59 percent decline in overall cargo tonnage, even though the number of ships calling at the Maumee River and Lake Erie docks increased.

The 41.81 percent decline in grain cargoes was “true for all the Great Lakes ports this year” because of a wet spring that left some fields unplanted and others planted late, said Joe Cappel, the port authority’s vice president for business development.

Higher-than-average wheat cargo and new business in outbound distillers’ dried grains from ethanol production helped a bit, Mr. Cappel said, but corn and soybeans were down sharply.

“With a normal harvest, we would have surpassed 2018” in grain, he said.

A spokesman for The Andersons, the area’s largest grain trader, declined to comment before the company’s upcoming fourth quarter and year-end earnings call. That call is set for Feb. 12.

On the plus side, iron ore was up by nearly 600,000 tons, an 18.85 percent increase driven by the first ore deliveries to the Cleveland-Cliffs iron-reduction plant under construction along Front Street, Mr. Cappel said.

“They’re ready to rock once that plant is operational,” he said, calling the half-million tons unloaded at Ironville Dock and transferred by new conveyors over to a plant stockpile along Front “a good test of the equipment.”

Production of direct-reduced iron briquettes for use in electric-arc steel mills is expected to start at the plant this year.

The smallest cargo sector by tonnage was also one of the brightest. General and miscellaneous cargo, which includes metals and “project cargoes” like wind-turbine components and heavy machinery, rose by 54.98 percent: from 179,204 tons to 277,574 tons.

Mr. Cappel said that was largely a result of the cancellation of Trump Administration tariffs on Canadian aluminum and steel, which had taken a bite out of the local port’s metals business in 2018 after a record year in 2017.

“Aluminum came back with a vengeance after the tariffs were lifted,” he said: It accounted for 208,000 tons, up from 130,000 in 2018. Toledo’s status as an official London Metals Exchange delivery point for aluminum has helped keep its aluminum trade robust.

Machinery for the Cliffs plant and wind-turbine parts transferred from ships to trains in Toledo for delivery to Van Wert County also helped the general-cargo sector, which is considered among the port’s most valuable because those shipments provide more work for longshoremen than does the heavily mechanized handling of coal or ore.

The port-owned general cargo docks also often handle dry-bulk cargoes like sugar, bauxite, and the oil-refining byproduct petroleum coke. But while “we handled a lot of salt this year,” Mr. Cappel said, the dry-bulk sector was down by nearly 11 percent because of a decline at the Midwest Terminals dock that primarily han-dles railroad ballast rock for CSX Transportation.

Coal also was down by just over 10 percent to 2,448,749 tons, marking its third-weakest year in Toledo since the start of port record-keeping in 1947. Only 2015, with 1,920,339 tons, and 2012, with 2,387,977, were lower at CSX Transportation’s Presque Isle dock.

Coal volume has sunk for several decades as the electric-power industry on both sides of the Great Lakes shifted away from it as a fuel and blast-furnace steel production lost market share to foreign competitors and electric-arc mills.

Liquid bulk shipments, conversely, showed the largest percentage increase, more than tripling to 414,568 tons. The majority of Toledo’s liquid-bulk cargo, Mr. Cappel said, is petroleum handled at the BP-Husky marine terminal.

“While I do not have direct knowledge of the reason for increased shipments through that dock in 2019, we do know that BP Husky has made improvements to their marine facility in recent years and values the ability to utilize marine transportation for certain products whenever practical,” the port official said.

BP officials did not respond to a request for comment.

Except to predict that grain will get off to a slow start when lakes shipping resumes in the spring because of low inventories, Mr. Cappel balked at forecasting the upcoming season. A wild card, he said, will be the impact of Cleveland-Cliffs’ recent purchase of AK Steel, whose mills in Middletown, Ohio, and Ashland, Ky. — the latter mostly idled several years ago — had long been the main consumers of iron ore unloaded in Toledo before last year.