Rise is likely in coal exports at port

June 08, 1991|By John H. Gormley Jr. | John H. Gormley Jr.,John S. Connor Inc.

The Consolidation Coal Sales Co. terminal in Baltimore is expected to capture the bulk of the export coal moving through a soon-to-be-mothballed coal pier in Philadelphia, a coup that could mean a one-third increase in the port of Baltimore's coal exports.

After concluding that Baltimore has become more competitive for export coal shipments, Consolidated Rail Corp., the owner of the Philadelphia pier, decided to begin shutting down its facility.

The Philadelphia facility, known as Pier 124, handled over 3 million tons last year. The bulk of that coal, perhaps all of it, will move through Baltimore in the future.

The result should be a boon for the Consolidation Coal Sales terminal, which recently completed an expansion that increased its handling capacity by about 50 percent.

The new business also represents a major benefit of the $237 million project to deepen the port's channel system by 8 feet, to 50 feet. Consolidation Coal Sales was the first terminal in the port to deepen its berths to take advantage of the deeper channel system.

The deeper channel allows the terminal to handle much larger ships. Before the completion of the channel project late last year, the record load for a coal ship in Baltimore was 119,000 tons. In March, Consolidation Coal Sales broke that record when it loaded 133,000 tons aboard a ship called the Nord Atlantic.

Maryland pilots restrict ships to a depth of 45 feet. As the pilots gain experience in the new channels, they are expected to increase the limit to perhaps 48 or 49 feet. That would mean even bigger ships could use the port.

Some coal that would have moved through Philadelphia has already come to Baltimore, Richard Foster, a vice president of bulk commodities with John S. Connor Inc., said yesterday.

He noted that the number of coal ships loaded by Consolidation has been rising steadily in the last few months. In January and February, Consolidation handled four coal ships. In May, Consolidation had 11 ships, and 13 are scheduled to load coal in June.

The Philadelphia terminal handled about 2 1/2 million tons of bituminous (soft) coal last year and about half a million tons of anthracite. Mr. Foster expects all of the bituminous to move through Baltimore. The future of the anthracite is less certain.

If Baltimore gets all the bituminous coal that would mean as many as 50 more ships a year for the port, Mr. Foster said.

Loading coal is a highly mechanized process. Not many jobs would likely be added at the coal terminal, but the increased ship traffic would be a boon for a wide range of other port businesses: pilots, tugs, line handlers, agents and ship repair companies, as well as suppliers of fuel and other items.

"The whole port benefits," said Benjamin F. Wilson, port manager for Lavino Shipping Co. "It's just a ripple effect."

Conrail said the Philadelphia terminal will handle its last bituminous load early this month. The terminal will continue to handle anthracite until November. At that point the Philadelphia pier will go out of operation, although the railroad will continue to maintain it as a standby facility to handle any sudden surges in business.

Conrail concluded that it is much more economical to use the newer, more efficient Baltimore terminal, Robert L. Libkind, a Conrail spokesman, said. The Baltimore pier can load ships more than 2 1/2 times faster, and the deeper channel allows ships to load more coal. That means considerable savings for the ship owners and shippers.

Philadelphia is limited to ships drawing about 40 feet of water, compared to the limit of 45 feet in Baltimore. A rock ledge across the Delaware makes it almost impossible to increase that depth. "You can dredge all you want; you're not going to get rid of that rock," Mr. Libkind said.

The Baltimore terminal has another advantage that is important to Conrail -- ground storage of the coal. That permits trains to dump their coal and return to the mine for more without delay.

Coal exports

The closing of a coal pier in Philadelphia might add 2.5 million tons a year to coal exports at the port of Baltimore.

.. .. .. No. of .. ..Millions

Year.. .. vessels.. .. of tons

1978.. .. 137 .. .. .. 5.8

1979.. .. 182 .. .. .. 9.1

1980.. .. 231 .. .. ..12.6

1981.. .. 234 .. .. ..13.3

1982.. .. 198 .. .. ..11.7

1983.. .. 128 .. .. .. 6.9

1984.. .. 134 .. .. .. 7.3

1985.. .. 143 .. .. .. 7.6

1986.. .. 131 .. .. .. 6.9

1987.. .. 123 .. .. .. 6.4

1988.. .. 126 .. .. .. 7.6

1989.. .. 154 .. .. .. 8.3

1990.. .. 136 .. .. .. 7.8

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