Potlatch Product Mostly Bypassing
by Chuch Oxley, Associated Press
BOISE, Idaho -- The Port of Lewiston has all but lost its biggest container-shipping customer because the Potlatch Corp. is increasingly trucking its Asia-bound product to Puget Sound ports.
There, the Potlatch paperboard can be loaded aboard the newest, most cost-effective ocean vessels for shipment to Japan and the Pacific Rim.
The Snake-Columbia river barge route out of Lewiston deposits containers at the Port of Portland. But the newest ocean vessels have been finding the Columbia River channel at Portland too shallow to navigate.
"In the past couple of years, we've had to move shipments to Puget Sound ports because the Port of Portland currently is not able to accommodate state-of-the-art vessels," Mark Benson, Potlatch spokesman in Lewiston, said Wednesday.
Formed in 1958 by the voters of Nez Perce County, the Port of Lewiston is Idaho's only seaport, 465 miles from the Pacific.
Spokane-based Potlatch's use of the Lewiston port has declined since 2002 and dropped off even more significantly in January, Port Manager David Doeringsfeld said Wednesday. That's when two of the four container shipping lines serving the Port of Portland stopped calling there.
In April, the Port of Lewiston shipped 46 containers of paper products, compared with 548 containers during the same period last year. And business is unlikely to get any better until the Columbia is dredged, Doeringsfeld said.
Doeringsfeld said he's confident that a proposed Army Corps of Engineers dredging project, which would deepen 106 miles of the Columbia River to 43 feet, will allow the larger ships access to the Oregon port and the river.
"Once the channel deepening is done, and the Port of Portland recruits new steamship lines, Potlatch will begin utilizing the river again," Doeringsfeld said. "It's still the most economic means of transportation."
Indeed, Potlatch's Benson lamented the current state of river service.
"The Snake-Columbia shipping corridor is a very efficient way for Potlatch to move products to Asian markets," Benson said. "The biggest drawback is the lack of ships."
Benson said the situation has improved marginally in recent weeks, with one of Portland's shippers making limited calls to Japan.
Japan is Potlatch's largest Asian customer for paperboard, which is used to make containers for goods such as food, cosmetics and medicine.
Dredging work will begin in June on a 13-mile stretch of the Columbia closest to the Pacific, said Matt Rabe, an Army Corps spokesman in Portland. That work will extend the deeper channel far enough to allow the new ships to safely load at some locations downriver from Portland.
Currently, the new ships can sail in to Portland without full loads, but when their hulls are full and their drafts are deeper, they cannot make it back to the ocean without a risk of grounding.
"It's an authorized project," Rabe said. "It's just a matter of getting the funding from Congress and going ahead with the contractor."
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