Port of Portland to close its container terminal


The Port of Portland is planning to shut down Oregon’s only international shipping container service in October, a decision that could affect nearly 1,500 jobs across the state. International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 8 and state lawmakers have asked the port to reverse course. 

“In today’s world, containers are the backbone of international waterborne transportation,” Local 8 Secretary-Treasurer Leal Sundet wrote in an April 19 letter to port executives. “Container terminals are as integral to state economic success as roadways and bridges and together function as economic drivers. It is wrong for current caretakers of the Port to walk away from a century of public investments that have generated prosperity for the greater good of the State of Oregon.” 

Located on the Columbia River next to Kelly Point Park, Port of Portland’s Terminal 6 (T6) is set up with cranes that Local 8 longshore workers use to load and unload container ships. Those ships export Oregon-made goods, like Bob’s Red Mill whole grain foods, Les Schwab tires, and Pacific Seafood products, and import products like furniture, tires, and clothing. The container operation creates 696 direct jobs and an estimated 871 indirect jobs in the region, according to the port. It connects Oregon businesses with an international market, moving about $782 million worth of products a year, according to a 2021 study by BST Associates. The next closest port with similar services is Tacoma, so if T6 stops handling container cargo, Oregon businesses will have to find another way to export their products, Sundet told the Labor Press.

“That terminal isn’t just a place for Local 8 longshoremen to work, but it’s an economic engine, if you will, for the whole state,” he said. 

The terminal’s unique location — 100 miles from the ocean on a river channel that’s just 43-feet deep — have caused it to operate in the red for several years, Keith Leavitt, the port’s chief trade and economic development officer told commissioners at an April 10 meeting. Shippers must hire a second, specially trained river pilot to navigate the Columbia River, and larger ships may not be able to make it to Portland at all, he said. 

Overseen by a board appointed by the governor, the Port of Portland is a tax-supported agency with a mission of economic development; it owns marine terminals, the Portland International Airport, and large amounts of industrial land.  

In the past, the port has subsidized T6’s losses with money it makes from other terminals. But the deficit is growing. This year the port estimates that T6 will operate at a $14 million loss — nearly triple the losses it reported in 2022. 

On April 10, Leavitt told port commissioners that the best solution would be to lease T6 to a third-party operator, who could take on the financial risk but perhaps run the terminal more efficiently than a public agency. He said the port was negotiating with a “potential partner” that he was optimistic would work, but he did not name the company. The deal apparently fell through less than a week later: On April 15, Leavitt sent a letter to T6 shippers notifying them that container operations would cease Oct. 1. 

“We know that this terminal is a critical statewide asset — it is worthy of further discussions to come up with a financially sustainable business model for container service that has significantly more state funding and investment,” he wrote. “For now, we have run out of financial options and must take this step.”

T6 operates as a “multipurpose” dock, and it runs vehicle and “breakbulk” cargo operations, neither of which will be affected by the container service shutdown. That means Local 8 members won’t be put out of work entirely, Sundet said, but they are still worried about the ripple effects that ending container services will have for the Oregon economy. 

“(T6) provides job growth … and also money for business interests. It helps move products and puts us on the map, so to speak,” Sundet said. “In today’s world, containerization is a key component of moving cargo, so if they close that, it would be terrible for the entire state.” 

Sundet has urged the port to work with Harbor Industrial, the port’s stevedore, to operate T6. Sundet says the port walked away from previous lease negotiations with Harbor Industrial, even though the company is supported by Local 8 and the two shippers that use the terminal most. 

Oregon State Senator Lew Frederick and State Representatives Janelle Bynum, Lucetta Elmer, Ed Diehl, Kim Wallan, and Travis Nelson also wrote port officials pleading their support in the port’s search for ways to keep container operations going. 

“Already businesses across all sectors — both large and small — are calculating the potential costs of alternative transport arrangements should the international terminal close,” the lawmakers wrote. “Time is of the essence as companies are finalizing service contracts for the upcoming year, and businesses across the state face new uncertainty caused by these sudden developments.” 

In a letter sent to state lawmakers on April 25, Port of Portland Executive Director Curtis Robinhold explained that so far, talks with Harbor Industrial have yet to reach “actionable lease proposals that are financially responsible for the port.” 

“We stand ready to work with you and other parties to find a long-term solution, should a financially sustainable proposal materialize,” Robinhold wrote.


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