Some freighters have been anchored for a month or more in the lower Columbia River, and others have been circling around outside the river’s mouth while they await open berths.
Blame the weather for what have been some unprecedented grain shipping delays along the lower river this winter and spring.
Harsh winter weather nationwide and across the Northwest and a planned, four-month shutdown of shipping locks in the Snake/Columbia river system have delayed the arrival of grain to export terminals in Longview and other locations on the lower river, according to maritime sources.
“It’s been a challenging first part of the year,” said Matthew Kerrigan, chief operating officer for the Export Grain Terminal at the Port of Longview. “It has been slow, but we’re finally starting to work through backlogs as the weather gets better and the locks open up.”
The lower river “was as congested as it can be. We had every anchorage spot taken,” said Jon Aschoff, vice president of the Portland-based Columbia River Pilots, members of which guides cargo vessels up and down the river.
There are about 28 spots from Astoria to Portland for ships to anchor while waiting to load. They were all taken, mostly by grain ships, Ashoff said. Some vessels have had to wait a month to dock, while some have had to circle around in the ocean awaiting their turn, Ashoff said.
No safety concerns have arisen, Ashoff said, because the anchorages are outside the navigation channel and anchored ships pose no hazard as long as they are secured correctly. But remaining idle at anchor costs money. Aschoff said he’s heard that some ships bound for the Columbia diverted to the Gulf of Mexico rather than languish here. That report, though, could not be confirmed.
Margaret Lapic, a resident of Willow Grove west of Longview, said she’d been amazed at the presence of so many freighters anchored in front of her home, though they’ve left in the last few days.
“I have lived on Willow Grove Road since 1989. Until this year, although the ships go up and down the river in front of my house, ships have never anchored out front. But since New Year’s Eve, there has been at least one ship parked there. Usually there are two. The ships that anchor are often there for several weeks before moving upriver,” Lapic said by email last week.
Backlogs in shipments and loading occurred mostly in the rail system. Kristin Meira, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association, said landslides and rail washouts delayed BNSF Railway shipments to lower Columbia grain terminals, three of which are located in Cowlitz County.
The weather problem was compounded by the four-month closure of eight shipping locks on the Snake/Columbia river system, which grain barges used to move inland grain to lower river ports. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers maintenance shutdown of the locks, which ends Tuesday, was scheduled a year in advance in cooperation with shippers and other river users. It just coincided with a rough winter, said Meira, whose organization represents lower river ports.
The situation illustrates how important all the river infrastructure — rails, navigation channel, anchorages, locks — are needed to move commerce efficiently, she said.
Kerrigan, the EGT official, describe the train shipments this way: A grain train from Montana that ordinarily would take three to four days to arrive in Longview was taking 10 days.
Kate Mickelson, executive director of the Columbia River Steamship Operators Association, said, “Pacific Northwest grain shipments were severely affected by harsh weather conditions experienced this winter that resulted in abnormal delays in vessels waiting to load of up to four to six weeks. The situation is improving as weather conditions improve and vessel delays continue to reduce as the supply chain catches up with the demand.” The association represents shipping agents.
BNSF Railway spokesman Gus Melonas said at rockslide in north Idaho, avalanche hazards in the Glacier National Park area of Montana, and mudslides in Southwest Washington and Puget Sound area have all contributed to delays in grain shipments. But operations are returning to normal, he said, “ We’re back on schedule meeting demand.”