State threatens to evict largest stevedoring firm

April 16, 1994|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,Sun Staff Writer

In an unprecedented move that ultimately could create havoc at the rebounding port of Baltimore, the state is threatening to evict the port's largest stevedoring company.

The dispute between the Maryland Port Administration -- the agency that oversees operation of the state-owned terminals -- and Ceres Terminals Inc. centers on nearly $1 million in payments thatCeres allegedly owes the state in connection with its operation at Dundalk Marine Terminal.

In an April 7 letter, the MPA demanded the money within 10 days and threatened to take all actions, including eviction, to remedy the situation.

The Hoboken, N.J., company, owned by Chris Kritikos, is responsible for hiring longshoremen to load and unload ships for nearly two dozen steamship lines at the port. In addition, it operates one of the two private mini-terminals at Dundalk, processing cargo from ships and barges onto trucks and vice versa.

The state owns the 570-acre Dundalk site and effectively acts as a landlord, charging Ceres rent for the land it occupies, plus fees forwharfage, dockage and use of the cranes.

"We're the landlord. He [Kritikos] is the tenant," Acting MPA Director Michael Angelos said yesterday. "The tenant is not paying his lease."

The state and Ceres also have filed suit against each other in Baltimore Circuit Court.

"At a certain point, the commission had a fiduciary responsibilityto say our patience can't continue," Mr. Angelos said.

Neither Mr. Kritikos nor other Ceres officials could be reached for comment. Among other things, Ceres contends that the port favors in its fees Ceres' competitor, Maersk Inc./Universal Maritime Service Corp., which operates the other mini-terminal at Dundalk.

Ceres, which has operated in Baltimore for two decades, also provides services at 30 other ports in the United States and Canada.

Evicting Ceres would have serious ramifications for the port, which has experienced a resurgence after nearly a decade of losing steamship lines and cargo to other ports, notably in Virginia.

An eviction would force the MPA to undertake a difficult transition, shifting to another stevedoring company that may be unfamiliar with huge shipping lines, such as Atlantic Coastal Lines. Ceres' sophisticated computer system is linked directly to those steamship companies.

Ultimately, the MPA -- which lacks a similar computer system -- could be forced to take over the operation. "I think other stevedore companies would be willing to step up to the plate," Mr. Angelos said. "But the state could do it as a last resort."

But an eviction also could end competition between Ceres and Universal. Opened in 1992, the mini-terminals are seen as critical to Maryland's dual goals of processing cargo more efficiently while creating a competitive environment that results in lower rates for the steamship lines.

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