Port of Bellingham to ramp up cargo capacity

City of Bellingham
The Port of Bellingham is entering into a contract with Ports America, a move which stakeholders say will bring more jobs and add cargo volume. Photo: Nick Kelly.

A new agreement will allow the Port of Bellingham to handle more cargo shipments—a move which members of the port and the labor community say will strengthen the local economy and provide sustainable work for existing longshoremen and those in training.

The Port of Bellingham this month reached a three-year service contract with Ports America which will allow the port to start regularly accepting international cargo at its Bellingham Shipping Terminal.

“There is a great deal favoring the Bellingham Shipping Terminal,” said Ports America Director of Breakbulk and Project Cargo Bart Goedhard in the press release. “In addition to abundant berth space, warehouse and laydown space, the terminal is near major cities, has a dedicated truck corridor to I-5 and has close proximity to rail.”

The contract includes the option to extend for up to six additional years and specifies that Ports America will have the loading, unloading and other dock-related rights for products including certain steel types, inbound forest products and metal and aluminum ingots.

Chris Clark, Marine Terminals Business Development Manager for the Port of Bellingham, told Lens that the port was interested in the contract because port management has wanted to better utilize the shipping terminal for more cargo activity.  

“It will accelerate the younger generation of longshoremen that might be starting out or have part-time jobs to have full-time employment here,” said Clark. “One of the best features of this contract is that we will be able to put people into the workforce on a full-time basis. Once that happens, it does percolate into the local economy.”

By making this agreement, Ports America staff said they will do their best to bring their members, which include ship owners and cargo interests, to Bellingham.

In preparation, the port has made physical improvement to the terminal’s warehouse including new roofing and improved lighting. The port also purchased equipment that will be used to handle cargo.

Although shipments are being imported and exported out of ports along the west coast and British Columbia, the Port of Bellingham does not have the capacity for container ships to compete with the Port of Seattle, according to Clark. Instead, the port handles specialized cargo including steel coils or pipe.

He added that some ships must wait for a week or longer before they can get into the dock because of the congestion and lack of storage space. The Port of Bellingham has the benefit of being geographically closer to the users of some of the cargo, as well as being able to make space for those carriers.

“We can give them the reassurance and peace of mind that they can come in here and unload and that it will all go to plan, so they can go on to their next cargo.”

Brett Frost, Second Assistant Dispatcher for International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 7, told Lens that the contract will provide additional opportunities for labor.

“We haven’t had a substantial amount of work here in the port for the last 20 years, and this will increase our manpower and hours here,” he said.

He added that the new contract will provide a steady employment rate for his union. For non-registered members, also referred to as casual workers, the additional work provides the opportunity to accumulate hours which could potentially lead to their registration to the industry to advance the union’s workforce.

The agreement will also work to solve the problem of many workers traveling long distances to find work, said Frost. He added that although people may be able to find work here and there, it isn’t enough to make a decent living.

“Once we get the initial trial shipment…we can address who needs to be trained on what, and then we will bring that to our employer and go from there,” said Frost.

Port management said they are optimistic that increased cargo shipments can start arriving by the end of the year.

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