Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Halifax Grain Elevator - going full tilt

[Note: computer glitch delayed posting this on December 11 when both ships were still in port.]

It’s not often that ships are seen unloading and loading to the Halifax grain elevator at the same time. The massive grain handling facility in Halifax has been underutilized in recent years, but has been experiencing a bit of resurgence in the last few weeks. That is a blip however, and it is expected to return to its quiet ways with the end of the St.Lawrence Seaway season in a few weeks.

The elevator, consisting of 365 silos, with a total capacity of 5, 152,000 bushels was built in four stages: 1925, 1929, 1958 and 1963. The first stage was but to replace the previous elevator destroyed in the Halifax explosion. Later stages were prompted by amendments to Crow’s Nest Pass Agreement. That 1897 deal, between the Canadian government and the Canadian Pacific Railway gave the railroad access to valuable mineral properties in exchange for reduced rates to haul grain and flour eastbound - in perpetuity. Well perpetuity for governments is not for ever! The rate was suspended during World War I, and was revised in 1927 (after the government ha formed the Canadian National Railroad) and then applied to grain only and to all rail lines. The CPR deal had favoured the Port of Saint John, but with the new CNR serving Halifax, a bigger gain elevator was warranted.

From the 1903s through the 1960s Halifax was a major grain exporting hub. In those days the entire St.Lawrence River closed for the winter and Halifax stockpiled grain and shipped it from January to April in huge quantities. Often the elevator was full. The port of Halifax owns the grain elevator and leases it to operators Halifax Grain Elevator Ltd.

As I said perpetuity does not mean forever with governments and the rate was adjusted in 1984 by the Western Grain Transportation Act, but it was capped. In 1993 it was eliminated completely and the grain trade for Halifax fell away dramatically. Traffic had been eroding anyway with the opening of the St.Lawrence Seaway, winter navigation on the St.Lawrence and better connections to the Mississippi and the west coast, but NAFTA was really the final nail in the coffin - or so we thought.

This year’s resurgence however is thanks to nature, not to any act of government. Historic low water levels on the Lakes and St.Lawrence River mean that ships have not been able to load to full draft in that area and have come to Halifax to top off their loads. Low water on the Mississippi has also slowed exporting in that direction. The usual west coast grain backlogs have not really been a factor.

In the late 1960s Halifax got its first flour mill, Dover Mills (which is now P&H) and became a customer for grain. Situated adjacent to the grain elevators it can receive grain by pipeline from the elevator. It can also receive grain by rail, so is not tied exclusively to the elevator. Also regional farmers and feed mills receive feed grains (including corn) which has been shipped from the Great Lakes and stored in the elevator until needed.

Thus it was that this week we saw Algoma Mariner with a load of grain from the lakes unloading at pier 25. The Canadian flagged ship was built in China in 2011 for Great Lakes service. It sailed during th evening of December 11.

Meanwhile at pier 28 the Cyprus flagged Tundra was taking a top off load. It had loaded soy in Hamilton, ON to maximum allowed Seaway draft, and is now loading to its deep sea mark. Built in 2009 in measures 19,814 gross tons and 30, 892 deadweight tonnes. It is operated by the large Canadian operator Canfornav (which owns no ships).

Tundra ran aground on a mud  bank outside of the shipping channel just downstream from Sorel-Tracy, Qc on November 28. It took the lightering off of some cargo and the combined efforts of four tugs to free the ship on December 5. There was no apparent damage, the cargo was re-loaded at Trois-Rivières, and the ship was on its way the next day.

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