Labor disputes, a faltering economy and the loss of shipping lines contributed to an 11 percent drop in general cargo at the Port of Baltimore's public terminals.
State-owned terminals handled 5.1 million tons of general cargo in 1990 compared with 5.8 million in 1989, according to figures released yesterday by the Maryland Port Commission, the policy-setting board that oversees the Maryland Port Administration.
Volume slipped to the lowest level in the past five years. In 1988 the port handled 5.9 million tons; in 1987, 5.7 million; in 1986, 5.9 million, and in 1985, 5.8 million.
The North Locust Point terminal alone saw a 54.4 percent drop in its general cargo tonnage. But all terminals except the new Seagirt Marine Terminal, which wasn't operating in 1989, had declines.
General cargo -- goods not handled in bulk -- includes autos, steel and consumer merchandise carried in standardized shipping containers. It is highly sought by ports because of the waterfront jobs it creates.
"1990 was a year marked by a number of different events that were not good for the port," said Brendan W. O'Malley, director of the Maryland Port Administration.
Two labor disputes -- a three-day strike in January and a two-day strike in December -- marred the port's performance and helped discourage new business from coming to the port.
The decline in container tonnage also reflected the diversion of cargo to Norfolk by Maersk Line and the loss of the Farrell and Top Gallant shipping lines, O'Malley said.
Compounding the woes was the onset of the recession, which resulted in a drop in demand for automobiles. Automobile cargo through the public terminals was down 14.5 percent compared with 1989.
Container cargo dropped 8.6 percent to 3.9 million tons.
Lumber dropped nearly 30 percent to 47,994 tons and steel fell nearly 53 percent to 154,837 tons.
"None of us liked 1990," O'Malley said. "It was a year to be forgotten as far as I'm concerned."
So far this year, cargo volume appears to be better, O'Malley said.
O'Malley said pulp and steel shipments are up since the first of the year. He also expressed optimism that cargo being shipped to rebuild Kuwait will be sent through Baltimore.
"1991 I expect to be much improved," he said. "It will be the first full year for Seagirt, there are no significant labor negotiations, we're working cooperatively with labor, we're doing major sales calls on our steamship lines and shippers, the Persian Gulf war is over and we expect to play a significant role in the rebuilding of Kuwait," O'Malley said.
According to a study released at the commission meeting yesterday, the port in 1989 employed 14,602 people and helped create another 10,139 jobs. A consultant hired by the commission found that the port contributed $67 million in state and local taxes and $1.9 billion in business revenues.
Those numbers likely were lower in 1990, but O'Malley said he couldn't estimate how those figures were affected by the decrease in port business.