The future of the shipping terminal

The deepwater shipping terminal is a prominent fixture on Bellingham's waterfront. Once a hub of commerce, it is now used...

Without NOAA, what’s to become of the deepwater terminal?

By Isaac Bonnell

It’s been nine years since Bellingham last saw regular shipping activity at its deepwater shipping terminal.

Ships used to come and go every few weeks to pick up loads of wood pulp from Georgia-Pacific and aluminum ingots from Alcoa Intalco Works, but that all came to a halt in 2000. Since then, the 1,500-foot pier has basically been a second home for Horizon Lines container ships and Foss Maritime tugboats.

“We’re in the moorage business right now,” said Port Commissioner Doug Smith. “The probability of shipping vast amounts of raw material [out of Bellingham] is pretty remote now.”

Perhaps the most prominent organization looking for moorage right now is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). With six research vessels currently anchored in Seattle, NOAA is expected to generate $19 million annually and bring 188 jobs to its next homeport city.

After years of wooing the federal agency, Bellingham was scorned in early August when NOAA chose to moor its ships at Newport, Ore. The Port of Bellingham has officially appealed this decision, but the question still lingers: Will the shipping terminal ever be more than just boat parking?

“The function of the marine terminal is to be a transportation connection for the community to access cheap waterborne transportation,” said Dan Stahl, marine director for the Port of Bellingham.

The site has a lot of potential for commercial uses, Stahl said. It has 30-foot-deep water,10 acres of adjacent flat land, two warehouses with more than 40,000 square feet each, and easy connectivity with the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railway.

One possible use that has received some interest is importing steel, Stahl said. The steel would be shipped to Bellingham and stored in one of the waterfront warehouses; it could then be processed and sold locally.

Besides importing steel, the Port receives two or three calls a month about the shipping terminal, but so far nothing has turned into a long-term agreement, Stahl said.

Bellingham is not the only city in the Puget Sound region seeking to revive its deepwater shipping terminal. Port Townsend, Anacortes, Everett and Olympia are all trying to lure boats from the major terminals in Seattle and Tacoma.

Unfortunately, Bellingham is geographically disadvantaged to compete against those ports.

“Inland transportation costs are a big part of why the terminal right now is not terribly busy,” Stahl said. “What we’ve found when marketing the terminal is that most of the customers have a destination that is in either central Washington or eastern Washington and we’re just disadvantaged geographically to get there.”
One advantage that Bellingham does have, though, is its proximity to the border.

“A lot of our marketing efforts are focused in Vancouver, B.C., on companies that perhaps want a U.S. presence,” Stahl said. “Or maybe they are maxing out on their volume in the Port of Vancouver and need some additional capacity. We’d love to help them out here.”

Importing vs. exporting

No matter what future use comes to the shipping terminal, it is more likely to involve importing goods rather than exporting them.

Historically, the deepwater port was used to export goods made locally. Timber was a major export, as was pulp from the Georgia-Pacific mill. Then in the 1960s, Intalco began using the terminal to export aluminum ingots.

But that was in a time when Bellingham produced more goods for export. G-P was still producing wood pulp and paper products on the waterfront. The aluminum smelter was running at full capacity and producing more than could be consumed regionally.

Thus, the terminal was a way for these companies to sell their products on the global market. In all, about 500,000 tons of goods were exported from Bellingham each year.

“That was their window to the world, because if you had to go overland, you just couldn’t do it in ways that were cost-effective,” Stahl said. “The railroads didn’t have the intermodal kind of connections that they have today, so water was the way to go.”

Then in 2000, G-P announced it was shutting down the pulp mill. At the same time, a shortage of power on the entire West Coast forced Intalco to significantly cut production, which effectively killed the exporting of ingots.

“So in one calendar year, both products just stopped,” Stahl said.

At the same time, the shipping industry as a whole was seeing a trend toward containerization and away from break-bulk cargo, meaning items that are shipped individually.

“Most shipping now is in containers, it’s not break-bulk,” said Dave Warter, marine operations supervisor for the shipping terminal and Squalicum Harbor. “We’re not really set up for containers — we do mostly break-bulk.”

A community asset

While Port staff continue to search for bigger and better uses for the shipping terminal, moorage continues to pay the bills.

“Right now we’re getting dockage revenue for the Horizon vessels and Foss tugs, but it doesn’t generate a lot of jobs,” Stahl said. “We have enough money that we can pay for ongoing operating costs and we can fund some repairs. Last year we spent about $500,000 on pilings and protection of the pier.”

While the shipping terminal may not currently be a large source of revenue on its own, it does indirectly help generate jobs.

For example, Fairhaven Shipyard has been using the pier since January to retrofit a new semi-submersible barge called the Faithful Servant, which will allow the company to work on larger boats.

With more capacity coming online soon, the company has been steadily hiring all year and expects to add about 100 new positions in total, said Neil Turney, president of Fairhaven Shipyard’s parent company, Puglia Engineering.

And without the deepwater terminal, the company would have had to do the retrofitting work elsewhere and work out the logistics of transporting employees to and from Bellingham, Turney said. Instead, the shipyard has been able to hire new employees and put them right to work on the new barge.

So to some degree the facility is helping generate jobs in Bellingham, just not in shipping, Stahl said.

“The marine terminal is a business asset to the community,” Stahl said. “As the economy continues to change and evolve, it’s good for the community to have that as an asset, because we can’t see around the corner to see what the next thing is going to be. And as long as it’s not a drain on the rest of the port — as long as it is holding its own financially — it’s a good asset.”

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