Thunder Bay port busy place in 2023

By Sandi Krasowski
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The Chronicle-Journal

As 2023 winds down, the record-breaking trend in port activity continues at Keefer Terminal with potash exports at the top of the list.

Chris Heikkinen, the port’s chief executive officer, said the port has been busy this year in most areas, with total cargo volumes expected to increase by about 1.5 million tonnes, or 20 per cent over last year.

“Ship visits are up accordingly, particularly the number of salty vessels calling the port, which will be in the top-three all time for our port,” he said.

Heikkinen called the potash exports an “unprecedented success” exceeding last year’s record-breaking seasonal total by over 300,000 metric tonnes.

“Both Mobilex and Thunder Bay Terminals are handling increasing volumes of potash, which is mined in Western Canada,” he said, adding that nearly half of the port’s total potash volume was transported during the last three months with October alone handling volumes 22-per cent higher than any other month in the past two years of the potash surge.

“This is a great story showcasing the agility of the Seaway supply chain,” he said. “Canada is now the number one producer of potash, with export volumes anticipated to grow annually. With global supply constrained in part due to the Russia-Ukraine conflict, moving Canadian potash to market is vital.”

Heikkinen noted that the terminal handles inbound shipments of phosphate fertilizer, which is stored on-site, railed, and trucked west on demand.

“There was growth in this cargo in 2023 and we see further opportunity to expand in 2024 and beyond,” he said.

Grain volumes rebounded in 2023, increasing by upwards of 20 per cent over the 2022 level.

“The increase was due to a strong carry-over crop from 2022,” he said. “The 2023 crop production wasn?t as strong and was hampered by dryer conditions. Fall shipments of grain have been somewhat tempered.”

He said with the end of the year in sight, the Port of Thunder Bay is poised to close the season with exceptional annual results.

“Traditional cargoes continue to move through Thunder Bay, and the port is actively seeking opportunities to diversify and grow our cargo base,” Heikkinen said. “Marine shipping is the most environmentally friendly mode. As the global movement to carbon neutrality moves ahead, shifting more cargo from land to sea would have a big impact.”

Records show that September was the busiest month in recent history, but that record was subsequently broken in November with Keefer Terminal?s year-to-date cargo volume currently more than three times the five-year average. The cargo included steel pipe, steel rail, wind turbine blades, and phosphate fertilizer.

“There was a brief labour disruption in October at the Seaway locks,” Heikkinen noted. “This impacted the shippers that utilize our system who?ve historically benefitted from its reliability. There was excellent industry collaboration to get operations up and running quickly once the dispute was settled.”

Work continues to implement a rail renewal project at Keefer Terminal, which will vastly improve its railcar capacity.

“Rail connectivity is a significant factor for our growing inbound commodities of steel pipe, rail, and fertilizer,” he said. “Our stevedoring partner, Logistec, handled record volumes of these cargoes in 2023, much of which is loaded to rail for furtherance west.”

Ahead, Heikkinen says growth and diversity of cargo will be their main goals.

“Increasing cargo volumes and tapping into new cargo opportunities supports job creation and economic stability,” he said. “There is a lot of opportunity in our catchment area, both in Western Canada and here in Northern Ontario. It is incumbent upon us to ensure the port is well equipped to tap into emerging cargo opportunities.”