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Shipping firms’ departures sink Port of Portland

Conrad Wilson Apr 7, 2015

Shipping firms’ departures sink Port of Portland

Conrad Wilson Apr 7, 2015

It’s a weekday morning and a tangle of trucks idles outside a container yard in Portland, Oregon.

The situation is a mess.

Inside a barbed-wire fence, large metal shipping containers are stacked three, even five high. Outside, trucks from around the state are jockeying to get in. Those that can’t are blocking the road.

“Here’s not normal. This is very un-normal,” says Ron Lobdell, one of the many truck drivers waiting in line to drop off a container and pick up another load. “It’s been backed up like this pretty good.” 

Normally, Lobdell would be taking containers to the Port of Portland for their journey to Asian markets, but that’s not happening so much any more. That’s because just weeks ago, South Korea-based carrier Hanjin Shipping officially left Portland. The carrier complained it was taking too long to load and unload its ships because of a nearly three-year long, local labor dispute between union members and their employer. 

Hanjin accounted for about 80 percent of all the business at Oregon’s only international container port. Now, most of the goods that were heading through the Port of Portland need to travel more than 170 miles north, to the Ports of Seattle and Tacoma. The smaller, German carrier Hapag-Lloyd pulled out Tuesday as well, meaning the Port of Portland has now lost 99 percent of its container service.

But that’s proving to be a challenge, says David Braman, the general manager of Mitchell Brothers Truck Line.

“Well, right now just the chaos that’s going on and nobody really knowing how they’re going to their freight moved from point to point,” he says.

With Hanjin gone, businesses here have two options to move containers, by rail or truck. But recently, Braman says have been so packed, they’re leaving containers behind.

And, the sudden change in shipping options means there’s also a shortage of trucks.

“We’re getting inundated with phone call after phone call from people looking for rates,” he says, referring to shipping rates, as in how much it’s going to cost a company to truck its containers to and from Seattle/Tacoma.

Trips to Puget Sound shipping terminals can be four times as costly and take three times as long as a trip to the Port of Portland.

“Something’s going to get left behind and we’re all in that same predicament,” he says “There’s nobody here that’s up to this speed yet.”

South of Portland, deep in the Willamette Valley in the “grass seed capital of the world,” Shelly Boshart Davis points to a forklift as it whizzes by and into a container backed up against the biggest barn you’ve ever seen.

“This right here, it’s going to go to Japan,” she says. “I can just tell by the loading style.”

Davis is the vice president of International Sales for Bossco Trading in Salem, Oregon. And for years, Davis has relied on Hanjin to ship grass straw from the Port of Portland.

“We are just one of 13, 14 exporters that bail up the grass straw that’s left behind in the field and we bail it, press it, containerize it and ship it to Japan and Korea for cattle feed,” she says.

Agriculture is a $5 billion industry in Oregon — and about 40 percent of what’s grown in the state is sold outside the country.

Davis says it takes her trucks a day and half to do what they once did in a day, her whole system of moving straw through the ports has been disrupted.

“And so it just logistically is much more of a nightmare for us,” she says.

With Hanjin now gone, the economic fallout may not be limited to the companies already shipping goods. Many in the business community worry it will be also harder to attract new companies to this part of the Pacific Northwest.

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