Government demands to move overstocked grain backlog out of Western Canada has not led to a huge spike at the Thunder Bay Port Authority.
CEO Tim Heney on Wednesday said grain elevators across the city remain only about one-third full on average, more than a month after federal legislation forced Canadian Pacific and Canadian National railways to ship 500,000 tonnes of grain weekly or face hefty fines.
Heney said storage levels in Thunder Bay hit 387,000 tonnes in the last week.
“That’s lower than we were actually last year,” he said.
There has to be a market for the grain in order for it to be shipped to Thunder Bay, Heney added, which is why more hasn’t arrived.
“We don’t just move grain without that,” he said. “There are many pieces that have to match up. There are many things that have to match up in that puzzle to make it work.”
Once the shipping season opens, Heney expects to see more activity. Last week’s movement is a clear indication of that, he said.
“We did see a bit of a spike last week. It was up to about 500 rail cars in a week. And that’s a bit more than we did in the same week last year. But it’s not a huge spike. We could do, theoretically, probably up to 3,200 cars,” Heney said.
Mother Nature hasn’t helped either.
Heney said he expects a much later start to the shipping season than last year, ice continuing to clog up much of Lake Superior, forcing ships that would normally arrive in Thunder Bay to start hauling grain forced to remain in port.
“A lot of the orders they prefer to put straight on the ship, so you’re going to see more and more activity when get that going,” Heney said.
“It’s one of the toughest ice years on Lake Superior probably in 30 years, at least.”
There’s hope on the horizon, however.
“There’s the first convoy of ships leaving Sault Ste. Marie on Saturday for Thunder Bay. They’re going to be escorted by an ice breaker and they’ll be here probably around Monday,” he said. “So that’ll be the official opening of navigation when that happens.”
According to figures supplied by Heney, Manitoba grain elevators are operating at 112 per cent capacity, highest in the country. Elevators in Saskatchewan are filled to 91 per cent, while those in British Columbia are up to 87 per cent.
Saskatchewan represents the biggest overall load, with more than 2 million tonnes in storage, not quite triple Manitoba’s 756,000 tonnes.
Heney estimated the early onset of winter in 2013 meant about 200,000 tonnes of grain did not get shipped to market through Thunder Bay as planned.
“It has taken its toll.”