Hamilton port sees strong year so far

The port authority president says infrastructure investments meant Hamilton could take advantage of a "perfect storm" this year.

Big uptick in grain exports, more steel shipments in 2018

A ship loads grain at Pier 10 in Hamilton. The city's port has seen a 109 per cent increase in grain shipments from the same time period in 2017. (Hamilton Port Authority)

Volatility in the United States helped deliver a strong year for Hamilton's port so far, with more steel imports and grain exports than the same timeframe in 2017.

Overseas cargo shipments are up 81 per cent through September compared to last year, said the port authority, and total cargo is up 18 per cent.

President and CEO Ian Hamilton says there's been an uptick in steel imports with the revival of Stelco, high demand and foreign countries turning to Canada to avoid U.S. tariffs.

But agricultural shipments "are off the charts," he said, with grain shipments from Hamilton up 109 per cent.

Hamilton said infrastructure investments meant the port could take advantage of a "perfect storm" this year.

A combination of NAFTA uncertainty, Canada's recent trade deal with the European Union, and a drought in Europe, has driven the demand for agricultural shipments, he said. Canadian grain traders have been looking more to European markets than the United States, meaning more grain shipped overseas.

Combined with a good harvest, it "all came together."

Hamilton said companies could take advantage of the "unique" year because of efforts to diversify the port's cargo to become less dependent on steel.

Over the last decade there's been $250 million in investments on the port for agricultural products, he said.

"We're seeing how ports can be used to diversify our trading partners and provide gateways for overseas markets," said Hamilton.

Stelco, U.S. tariffs and high demand boosts steel shipments

It's also been a strong year for steel imports at the port, said Hamilton.

Finished steel shipments are up 38 per cent from last year, he said, and metallurgical coal is up 25 per cent.

That's "in no small part" because of revived operations at the Stelco steel company, said Hamilton, which lead to the uptick in metallurgical coal.

The rise in steel imports is due in part to high demand, he says. However, Hamilton said there's also evidence some steel on its way to the States was diverted to Canada to avoid Trump's tariffs. 

U.S. volatility has meant many overseas steel importers have started looking at Canada as a distribution point, he said.

The United States has imposed a 25 per cent tariff on steel and 10 per cent tariff on aluminum, which remains in place despite the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA).

Canada has been trying to curb steel dumping and mitigate the damage from tariffs. 

To protect against "excessive imports of steel products," the federal government is introducing a 25 per cent surtax on seven steel imports starting October 25.

With the government safeguards, Hamilton said he does not think dumping is still happening.

If the U.S. doesn't remove its tariffs, Hamilton says they may see a reduction in steel shipments long-term.

However, he expects steel markets to stabilize and the agricultural market to grow.

"I think that the demand for steel is relatively stable, so it should continue to be a prosperous sector," he said.

Petroleum, fertilizer also up

The Hamilton port has also seen an increase in fertilizer and petroleum imports, Hamilton said, after more investments in gas distribution facilities.

Petroleum products were up 40 per cent and and fertilizer was up 11 per cent.

Strong year for the Seaway overall

It's not just Hamilton that's had a good shipping year; the St. Lawrence Seaway has seen an upward trend overall, with shipments up 4.1 per cent compared to 2017.

Canadian grain exports and salt shipments are driving the growth, said Terence Bowles, president and CEO of the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation, in a press release.