Tuesday, October 21, 2014

California's Smaller Ports Handling Bulk and Breakbulk

By Jim Shaw

California's large ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach and Oakland are well known for their container handling clout but the Golden State also has a number of smaller ports that are efficient cargo handlers in their own right, and many cater to the bulk, breakbulk and neo-bulk cargoes that the bigger ports sometimes shun. These smaller gateways stretch from the natural harbors of San Diego in the south to Humboldt Bay in the north, with a large cluster of facilities, both privately and publicly owned, maintained within the reaches of greater San Francisco Bay. It's worthwhile talking a look at these ports and facilities to see how they assist the world's eighth largest economy in handling its growing volume of imports and exports.

Port of San Diego
In Southern California, the ports of San Diego and Hueneme act as "satellite ports" for the larger gateways of Los Angeles and Long Beach within San Pedro Bay. San Diego is the only natural harbor of the four and functions as the US Navy's largest base in the Pacific. However it is also a large shipbuilding and repair center, and it still moves a considerable amount of commercial cargo, making it California's fifth largest port by tonnage when petroleum is not counted. Two large cargo terminals, Tenth Avenue and National City, offer a total of 15 berths. Refrigerated produce and dry bulks are handled at Tenth Avenue while National City specializes in autos, lumber and project cargoes. The total amounts to about 1.8 million tons of freight annually, including around 356,000 vehicles and over 100,000 TEUs of containerized goods, principally bananas and other tropical produce.

The port also handles cruise ships but these have been declining in number over the past several years because of the well publicized narcotics problems in neighboring Mexico. Cruise ship calls, in fact, have dropped from a peak of more than 250 in 2008 to fewer than 70 ships expected this year.

Port of Hueneme
To the north, the Port of Hueneme handles cargoes similar to those in San Diego – refrigerated produce and automobiles - but no dry bulks or cruise ships. Although a long ocean pier was built at Hueneme in the late 1800s to handle grain exports the port, as it stands today, was largely created during World War II. It remains a Navy-controlled harbor, the only one between San Diego and Puget Sound, but has also developed as a commercial gateway.

In 1977 Japan's Mazda Motors elected to use Hueneme as its West Coast base for imported automobiles. Two years later Del Monte selected the man-made harbor as its west coast importing and distribution hub for fruit and produce. Since then other produce handlers, including NYKCool, Sunkist Growers, Pacific Fruit and Chiquita, have moved fruit and produce through Hueneme while auto brands have grown to include BMW, Mini Cooper, Roll Royce, Mitsubishi, Suzuki, Land Rover, Jaguar, Volvo, Saab, Hyundai and Kia.

Owned and operated by the Oxnard Harbor District, Hueneme currently handles about 1.4 million tons of cargo annually, including some inbound liquid fertilizer, and also serves as a supply base for Southern California's offshore oil industry.

San Francisco Bay Ports
Within San Francisco Bay the Port of Oakland now dominates container traffic but there are several smaller ports in the greater Bay Area as well as a large number of private terminals that handle bulk, breakbulk, neo-bulk and heavylift cargoes. The Port of San Francisco itself, once the leading port of the Pacific, handles very little general cargo these days, amounting to just over 7,300 tons last year. 

However, it has become a base for aggregate imports and this commodity, destined for the local construction trades and brought in by self-discharging ships, totals about 1.2 million tons annually.

San Francisco also remains a cruise port, hosting from 60 to 80 vessel calls and 200,000 passengers annually. To better handle these ships the new James R. Herman Cruise Terminal is nearing completion at Pier 27 and will replace the port's aging Pier 35 structure by the end of the year.

Port of Redwood City
South of San Francisco the Port of Redwood City has also become a base for imported aggregates and this trade now dominates the port's tonnage figures although some scrap metal is exported and limited amounts of bauxite and gypsum imported. Earlier this year the port completed a $17 million wharf modernization program which saw a new 430-foot by 60-foot concrete structure replace a wooden dock built during World War II. The new wharf has been specifically sized to accommodate a conveyor and hopper system and is being used to handle aggregates as well as other dry bulk commodities. Opened as a commercial port in 1937, and substantially expanded during the war years, Redwood City has been handling about 1.4 million tons of cargo a year moved by an average of 50 deepsea ships and 25 barges.

Port of Richmond
In the northern reaches of San Francisco Bay the Port of Richmond is situated next to one of the world's oldest and largest oil refineries. Operated by Standard Oil, the refinery's import and export figures are included with the port's, making Richmond the State of California's third largest port in terms of overall tonnage, with more than 18 million tons of liquid, general and dry bulk cargo moved annually. The port itself, administered by the City of Richmond, contains five city-owned docks handling about 255,000 tons of cargo annually, and ten privately-owned terminals. One of the largest of the latter is the Levin-Richmond Terminal, which moves a wide variety of bulks, including scrap metal, iron ore, petroleum coke and coal. It also operates its own short line railroad which interchanges with two mainline carriers. The port's city-owned Pt. Potrero Marine Terminal is the largest import automobile facility on San Francisco Bay and handles Honda and Subaru automobiles.

Port of Benicia
To the east on Carquinez Strait the Port of Benicia, formerly the US Army's Benicia Arsenal, features a single 2,401-foot-long deepwater pier that can accommodate three vessels simultaneously. The pier, and an adjoining 640 acres of storage area, is used by the Benicia Port Terminal Company, an AMPORTS company, to handle General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, and Toyota automobiles while the Valero Corporation makes use of a portion of the pier to export bulk petroleum coke. Valera also maintains an adjacent tanker berth that serves its Benicia oil refinery.

A number of private facilities are located across the Strait, including the C&H Sugar docks at Crockett, while other installations are located to the east at Pittsburg and Antioch, one of the largest being the USS-POSCO complex at Pittsburg which handles steel coils.

Port of West Sacramento
Inland to the east, the ports of Sacramento and Stockton are reached by dredged deepwater channels maintained at depths of 30 feet and 35 feet respectively. Sacramento, the capital of California, has been seeing fewer ships each year because of its shallow channel, which restricts ship size as well as the loads they can carry. In 2006 the City of West Sacramento assumed responsibility for the port, after which it became known as the Port of West Sacramento. Last year all remaining cargo operations, principally the export of bulk and bagged rice and the import of dry and liquid fertilizers, were taken over by Seattle-based SSA Marine under a long-term lease agreement. This has seen the port's cargo volume stabilize at about 300,000 tons annually

Port of Stockton
The Port of Stockton, like Sacramento, serves California's inland agricultural region and thus handles such commodities as rice, animal feed and fertilizer. While Sacramento has berths for eight ships, Stockton can berth up to 15 following its incorporation of the former Rough and Ready Island Navy Base. This has also given it one of the largest land areas of any West Coast port, with more than 4,000 acres either currently operational or available for development.

Stockton's main imports are fertilizers and molasses, plus some steel products, while major exports include rice, sulfur, iron ore and coal. The latter two commodities have been coming in by rail from the Rocky Mountains area for export to Asia and have built up to nearly 1 million tons shipped annually. Last year a rail loop track was extended to allow the handling of six unit trains weekly. This has helped Stockton draw in around 400 vessel calls each year moving just over 3 million tons of import and export cargo.

Counting vessels drawn into San Francisco Bay by Stockton and other small ports, as well as the large container ships that dock at Oakland and the cruise liners calling at San Francisco, the Golden Gate sees an average of 3,500 ships arrive each year.

Humboldt Bay
North of San Francisco Bay only one California commercial port remains. This is the Port of Humboldt Bay, sometimes also called the Port of Eureka, which lies about 100 miles south of the Oregon border. Not discovered by navigators until 1806, the natural harbor has been used for lumber exports since shortly after the California Gold Rush, reaching a peak about 25 years ago. Although there are almost a dozen deepwater facilities located within the harbor most have deteriorated since the lumber boom and only a few remain serviceable today. In recent years log exporting has resumed at the port and this sees about a ship a month handled, with around 350,000 tons exported annually.