Grain shipments surging at Port of Thunder Bay after slow start

The Port of Thunder Bay hopes to ship seven million tonnes of grain this year, the most in 15 years.


Ice problems delayed the port opening by a month but in May more than 1.3 million tonnes were shipped, the largest one-month tally since 1998.


The port continues to ship about a million tonnes of grain a month.


“It’s very strong,” said Tim Heney, chief executive officer of the Port of Thunder Bay.


Last year, the port shipped 5.8 million tonnes of grain.


Spring and fall are normally the port’s busy seasons, but the delayed start to the shipping season, difficult grain movement this winter and last year’s record harvest are combining to produce strong grain movement through the Ontario port this summer.


The port has the largest grain storage capacity in North America, a holdover from its days as Canada’s main grain shipping port. 


Grain companies had moved crops to the port’s eight elevators this winter, expecting an earlier opening. The grain was loaded onto waiting vessels when the port opened at the end of April, which resulted in the record May shipment .


Movement is still well short of the record set in 1983, when 18 million tonnes were shipped to places such as the former Soviet Union and North Africa. However, the former Soviet Union became a grain exporter in the 1990s, and Thunder Bay shipments began to decline.


Heney said the port is watching the conflict in Russia and Ukraine and its possible impact on grain production and exports.


He said the spring’s record shipments have grain companies taking a second look at Thunder Bay.


“There’s been a lot of attention to Thunder Bay because of this surge. It’s still dependent on markets,” he said.


The storage facilities have helped reduce demurrage at the port, but the railroads can barely keep the grain flowing fast enough, he added.


Thunder Bay won’t be used to ship to Asian markets, but it will remain a key port. Shipments through ports along the Mississippi River slowed this year because of flooding, and railways had difficulty transporting grain to Churchill because of soft rail bed conditions.


Mark Dyck, director of logistics with CWB said the company has shipped a “tremendous amount of grain” since the port opened in May


Dyck estimates CWB has moved 50 percent more grain through Thunder Bay compared to the same time a year ago.


“Its been very, very busy and continues to be very, very busy,” he said.


“There is still lots of grain out there. We’re going full blast.”


CWB’s purchase of Mission Terminal at Thunder Bay ensures the port will play a key role in the company’s plans, he said.


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