Cargo business growing at Philadelphia port

A new shipment of cargo containers is loaded aboard the Maersk Wolfsburgat Philadelphia's Packer Avenue Avenue Marine Terminal.
A new shipment of cargo containers is loaded aboard the Maersk Wolfsburgat Philadelphia's Packer Avenue Avenue Marine Terminal.
Posted: March 01, 2011

More steel, more paper, more bananas, more cars - and more ships hauling it all. As the economy climbs slowly back from the devastating recession, the Philadelphia port is reporting an uptick in business.

Two shippers recently began a new weekly service at the Packer Avenue Marine Terminal in South Philadelphia that will involve 104 vessels a year.

Coming from Chile, Ecuador, and Peru, CMA-CGM Sa's Black Pearl line began Jan. 28 to carry refrigerated perishables - fruits, vegetables, fish - and other goods including copper.

Maersk Line launched a weekly service Feb. 20, bringing fruits and vegetables from Peru and Ecuador through the Panama Canal to Miami; Newark, N.J.; and Philadelphia.

Last year, the Port of Philadelphia's overall cargo volume increased 17 percent compared with 2009.

Piers and terminals on the Delaware River handled about 3.6 million metric tons of cargo, up from about 3.1 million tons in 2009, according to the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority.

Container shipments rose 18 percent, while non-container goods sent on palettes, wheels, or in bulk were up 32 percent, including automobiles, paper, fruit, cocoa beans, liquid chemicals, and steel.

"Demand has been picking up," said Thomas Holt Jr., president of Astro Holdings Inc., operator of the Packer Avenue Marine Terminal, where 150,000 new Hyundai and Kia cars will arrive from South Korea this year, destined for U.S. showrooms.

The CMA-CGM and Maersk service will add 56 "direct" jobs, working on ships, in the terminal, and the warehouse, and 98 "indirect" jobs for truck drivers, tugboat crews, ship pilots, and chandlers who deal in ship provisions and supplies, Holt said.

In April, Sea Star Line L.L.C., of Jacksonville, Fla., began a new weekly service from Puerto Rico to the Tioga Marine Terminal in Port Richmond.

Each Friday, Sea Star brings mangos, coffee, tomatoes, rum, and pharmaceuticals made in Puerto Rico. The medicines and over-the-counter products are trucked to distribution warehouses maintained by pharmaceutical companies in the region.

Sea Star returns to San Juan with U.S. consumer goods: toiletries, computers, groceries, cars, gasoline, and machinery.

"We have exceeded our expectations with this new trade line and have committed significant resources to continue to grow" in Philadelphia, Sea Star president Steve Hastings said last month.

Paper imports to the port have also grown.

The Finnish paper manufacturer M-real Corp. signed a long-term contract in April with Penn Warehousing & Distribution Inc. to bring 125,000 tons of paper and 24 ships a year to Piers 78 and 80 at the foot of Snyder Avenue.

With M-real transitioning out of Baltimore, paper importer Myllykoski Corp. also left Baltimore and now imports 30,000 tons of glossy magazine paper through the Philadelphia port. A third firm, Sappi Fine Paper North America, began exporting 30,000 tons of coated magazine paper from mills in Maine, through Philadelphia, to Australia.

Total paper tonnage here rose 53 percent last year, to 389,109 tons from 254,522 tons in 2009, the port authority said.

M-real, which imports coated liner board that is used in retail and consumer packaging, plans to bring an additional 20,000 tons of paper through the port this year, said John Brown Jr., president of Penn Warehousing. About 480,000 tons of paper products are expected to come through the port in 2011, he said.

"Absolutely, 2010 was a better year," said Robert Blackburn, the port authority's senior deputy executive director. "Of course, it came after two years that were bad, 2008 and 2009. It's certainly indicative of what we hope is the beginning of a recovery."

Steel shipments to Philadelphia were up 53 percent last year, to 170,215 metric tons. But that is modest compared with the 1.5 million tons of steel that once came through the port, Blackburn said.

Liquid chemicals such as acetone, benzene, ethanol, and phenol rose 16 percent last year, to 676,493 metric tons, compared with 583,835 ton in 2009, the port authority said.

Fruit from Chile and bananas from Colombia were up 2 percent, at 328,904 metric tons, compared with 321,702 in 2009.

"Philadelphia remains one of the critical points for us for perishable and refrigerated cargo," said Maersk vice president William Duggan.

"We have an extremely well-run operation there with the terminal, as well as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and our customer base, having distribution centers throughout that geographic area," Duggan said. "Philadelphia is a preference port for many of our customers."

Robert Palaima, president of the Delaware River Stevedores, said 2010 was a mixed bag. The advent of Sea Star at Tioga was a gain, but volumes were not back to the historic highs of 2006 and 2007. "The bottom fell out in 2008, continued bad in 2009, and made a recovery of sorts last year." Palaima said. "This year we continue to hope for the best."

Contact staff writer Linda Loyd at 215-854-2831 or

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