Four heavy-duty tractors and 16 tandem side-dump trailers are being trucked from as far away as Idaho into the Port of Eastport for shipment to a new mining operation in the Arctic.
While the Polar Class IV icebreaking bulk carrier Nunavik was to take the tractors and trailers to Deception Bay in northern Quebec this month, the mining company decided on February 16 for commercial reasons not to ship them this winter, according to Tim Keane, senior manager of Arctic operations for Montreal-based Fednav Limited, the parent company of Federal Marine Terminals, which operates the port terminal in Eastport. Keane says the next opportunity for shipment is early summer, perhaps in June or July, although it's not clear at this time if the tractors and trailers will end up being shipped from Eastport or another port.
The customer, the Baffinland Iron Mines Corporation, plans to use the trucks at the Mary River open pit iron mine at the northern end of Baffin Island in the Nunavut Territory in the Canadian Arctic. Reportedly the mine is the sixth most northerly mine in the world. Initially Baffinland Iron Mine planned to build a railway to transport the iron ore to the coast but in 2012 changed its plans to use large dump trucks. The company signed an impact and benefit agreement with Inuit who live in the area, but concerns have been raised that the company has not lived up to the agreement, including not sufficiently funding training and education programs and not meeting Inuit employment goals. The Inuit also have been concerned about the marine shipping route, since it cuts through where they hunt for walrus.
Northwest Passage opportunities
In 2014, Fednav's 619-foot Nunavik, the most powerful non-nuclear icebreaking bulk carrier in the world, was the first commercial vessel to transit, unescorted by icebreakers, the Northwest Passage, which runs from the Atlantic to Alaska. Because of global warming, the polar ice cap has shrunk to the lowest level on record, opening up the sea route through the Canadian Arctic for several months of the year. The route to China via the Northwest Passage is about 40% shorter than the traditional Panama Canal route and is viewed as possibly leading to new shipping opportunities for Maine ports, including Eastport.
Chris Gardner, executive director of the Eastport Port Authority, notes that the mining trucks and trailers may be shipped out of Eastport, instead of another U.S. port, because it is the closest port to the Arctic. "Location, location, location does matter. The Northwest Passage is only going to illustrate this even more."
Gardner believes that the opening up of the Northwest Passage may be "a game-changer" for the port, and he notes it has been discussed by state officials and business leaders. Looking at shipments to Europe, Eastport has marketed itself as the easternmost port in the country, but he observes, looking at shipments to Asia via the Northwest Passage, it also is the most northeastern port in the continental U.S.
"North never used to matter. The day that it does — and this [shipment] is a small example of that — we'll see what it holds for us," says Gardner. He adds, "We will stand at the ready, as we know there will be opportunities that will come our way."