- By Paul Scott Abbott, AJOTOutbound containers filled with steel coils or lumber are indicative of recent trends in ocean transport of traditional breakbulk commodities, reflecting factors such as the weakness of the US dollar and a push to fill boxes that otherwise might have moved empty.
“The container is looking very attractive because they’re coming in full and they want to go out full, and I think the rates are attractive for that,” said Judith Adams, manager of media relations and economic development at the Alabama State Port Authority.
Favorable box rates from Mobile to Asia and Northern Europe are leading to increased amounts of forest products, metals, poultry and other traditional breakbulk cargos heading out in containers, she said.
Adams added that one upside of the low value of the U.S dollar compared to other world currencies is the increase in export activity at US ports.
“I think that’s being seen not only in our port but at a number of ports,” she said,
The Mobile port is among those experiencing the trends toward growing exports and toward containerization of goods that traditionally have moved in breakbulk fashion, but, unlike most US ports, Mobile is not reeling on the breakbulk front from the precipitous decline in US housing starts.
While double-digits drop-offs in forest product and steel tonnages are being seen at many US seaports, forest product volumes are about even with last year at Alabama docks and steel throughput is on a strong upswing, having risen more than 25 percent last fiscal year, to 755,800 tons in the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, 2007, compared with 604,293 tons a year earlier.
Commercial and residential construction both remain comparatively robust in Alabama, and among the projects under way is a $3.7 billion, 3,500-acre carbon and stainless steel processing facility being built by ThyssenKrupp in the northern part of Mobile County.
Not only is this massive project creating demand for imported construction materials, but it also will be a major user of inbound steel slab from Brazil. The Alabama port authority is building an $85 million terminal to handle 500,000 tons a year of that material, which will be transloaded to barges for the 48-mile float up the Mobile and Tombigbee rivers to the plant. The terminal’s completion is being timed for readiness by the plant’s early 2010 startup.
“Steel is very big for us, and it’s growing, primarily due to the large number of steel plants in the state,” Adams said, noting that Severcorr, IPSCO, Nucor and US Steel all have Alabama facilities.
More characteristic of US ports as far as recent experiences with breakbulk goods is the Port of Tampa, where steel and forest products are among the breakbulk commodities that typically have arrived in significant volumes to serve demand in Central Florida, where 8 million people live within 100 miles of the port.
Wade Elliott, senior director of marketing at the Tampa Port Authority, said moves of these cargos have slowed as a whole while the specific commodities within the sectors have seen a shift.
For example, he said, although Tampa has seen declines in volumes of steel coil, which tends to be used in residential construction, moves of steel pipe, which serves an industrial market, are up.
Tampa port officials are hoping to see a rise in steel activity with the late February opening by Clearwater, Fla.-based Titan Metal Service Inc. of a $5 million, 50,000-square-foot steel processing and distribution facility on 5 acres leased from the Tampa Port Authority.
The Titan Metal facility, which is adjacent to the port’s Hooker’s Point steel-handling terminal and has direct rail service, boasts Florida’s largest steel sheet coil splitter, according to Elliott.
The facility’s ribbon cutting is scheduled to coincide with the 19th annual Tampa Steel Conference, to take place Feb. 28-29 at the Marriott Tampa