Coal exports through port booming

Asian demand for fuel turns bay into parking lot

  • Consol Energy's Coal distribution facility in Baltimore. Coal is brought in to the Marine terminal from several different coal mines and then it is shipped and exported to many places including China.
Consol Energy's Coal distribution facility in Baltimore.… (Baltimore Sun photo by Lloyd…)
June 11, 2011|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

Cross the Bay Bridge on any day of the week, and you're likely to see several giant freighters anchored in the water below.

A surge in coal exports from the port of Baltimore has turned the Chesapeake Bay into a maritime parking lot.

Demand from China, India and other countries for high-priced metallurgic coal to fuel steel production has grown so strong that ships are backed up south of the bridge waiting to gain a berth at one of Baltimore's two coal terminals.

To Helen Delich Bentley, the former congresswoman and federal maritime commissioner for whom the port of Baltimore is named, the vessels are reminiscent of the city's shipping heyday in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

"It's kind of like the old days when we had ships waiting in the bay for their turn at the pier," said Bentley, now a maritime industry consultant.

Shipments from the mines of Appalachia have been helping to lead Baltimore's port out of the recession and into some of the healthiest territory it has ever seen. Since the middle of last year, exports of the fuel to the world's fastest-growing region have jumped — in some months doubling the figures from the previous year.

Since October, the port has shipped more than 1 million tons each month, reaching a peak of more than 1.9 million in March — the latest figure available. Last year, the port handled almost 14 million tons of coal exports, more than double its total from 2009 and better than its pre-recession totals.

James White, executive director of the port of Baltimore, said he expects coal exports to set a new record this year.

"It puts the pilots to work, more tugboats, more man-hours at the coal facilities. Yeah, this is fantastic for us," he said.

White said the logjam in the bay hasn't gone unnoticed by the public. During the General Assembly's session this year in Annapolis, he said, "the biggest question I got was, 'Why do we have so many ships in the anchorage?'"

The thriving coal exports have helped bolster Baltimore's status as a leader in the shipment of bulk commodities, which also include such products as gypsum and paper.

The chief beneficiaries of the Asian demand for coal have been the port's two privately owned coal terminals — Consol Energy's CNX Marine Terminal in Southeast Baltimore and the CSX facility on Curtis Bay.

But White said the entire port benefits.

"When public terminals do well, I think it helps the private terminals, and when the private terminals do well, I think it helps us," he said.

While motorists on some roads might catch a glimpse of the black mounds of fuel waiting to be loaded onto ships, the public seldom gets an up-close look at what happens at the port's coal terminals. But they are humming operations, where workers under tight security orchestrate the intricate process of receiving shipments by train, mixing the product of multiple mines to create the desired blend of fuels, and loading the cargo into the holds of the massive ships that haul American coal across the seas.

Last Wednesday afternoon, visitors atop the 80-foot-high silo on the CNX property, which commands a panoramic view of Baltimore Harbor, could see the Italian-flagged Giuseppe Mauro Rizzo, a Panamax-class ship capable of carrying about 77,000 tons, tied up at the CNX terminal's berth.

Larger ships of the Cape class, so known because they must round the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa to reach Asia, carry loads of about 135,000 tons.

The typical coal vessel has nine to 11 holds, each the size of a basketball court, said Chris Marsh, the CNX vice president who manages the Baltimore terminal. (In the case of Cape-class ships, he said, each hold is as large as a professional arena.)

Marsh said the Giuseppe Mauro Rizzo would be carrying a load from Baltimore to Japan, one of Consol's traditional customers. But he said the recent growth in exports has been driven by China and, to a lesser extent, India.

That surge has brought a new burst of energy to the CNX facility. The company has spent tens of millions of dollars in recent years on improvements to the infrastructure, Marsh said. Employment has gone from 55 to 120 in that time.

"We didn't anticipate how this was going to get as big as fast as it did," Marsh said. The employment created at the terminal might not be white-collar jobs, he said, but they are "high-end, professional, nonoffice" positions.

For CNX, the Baltimore terminal is a way station on the route from its mines in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and Western Maryland to its major markets in Asia, Europe and Brazil. Norfolk Southern trains creep into the city at night using the Amtrak Northeast Corridor. CSX trains come in from the west through Halethorpe and the Howard Street Tunnel. All arrive at the terminal to the southeast of the Canton waterfront.

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