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COVER STORY: On North Van's waterfront
An inside look at Neptune Terminals reveals bustling activity on North Vancouver’s waterfront.
Driving by on the Low Level Road in North Vancouver, it’s difficult to tell exactly what happens at Neptune Terminals.
Past the busy train tracks, all that can be seen are pyramids of coal piled high beside long warehouses and towering industrial machinery.
Like many other bulk terminals in North Van, however, the action takes place on the waterfront, where ships are loaded with potash, steel-making coal and canola oil, primarily destined for Asia and Brazil.
“We handle over five per cent of Canada’s offshore export goods, around 12 million tonnes,” Bill Booker, Neptune’s vice-president of operations, tells The Outlook.
Wearing the orange vest, safety goggles and hardhat that are required on site, Booker stands at the door of a warehouse filled with a huge mound of potash which, at first glance, looks like orange sand.
Saskatchewan is the world’s largest producer of potash, Booker notes. It is a major ingredient in fertilizer and imported by 100 countries, mainly Brazil, China, India and Indonesia.
The image of soot-covered men painstakingly digging coal into ships is a thing of the past, though. Now big machines do most of the heavy work, easily loading tonnes of coal in a single day.
Unlike potash, coal can be stored outside before it’s packed onto ships after being carried on trains from Fernie, a mining town in southeast B.C. In the end, the coal will fuel steel mill furnaces in Korea, Japan and China.
“It can take three days to load it up,” says Booker, standing in front of a ship that is waiting to be filled with coal. This crew is from the Philippines but, more often, they arrive from Bangladesh or India.
Neptune is just one of half a dozen terminals on the north side of the Burrard Inlet that export everything from wheat and barley to wood chips and sodium chlorate, a chemical used to bleach paper.
Looking down from the Lions Gate Bridge, workers along North Vancouver’s waterfront are bustling to quickly upload and fill ships.
In 2011, close to 1,500 bulk-carriers arrived in Port Metro Vancouver, an increase of six per cent from the year before.
They came mostly from China, bringing electronics and other household gadgets, and took back large quantities of coal and forest products. Ships from the United States, South Korea and Japan also topped the list.
Importing phosphate rock from Morocco is next on the list for Neptune. It’s used in fertilizer and will be loaded on trains bound for Alberta.
“Our current capacity sits around 20 million metric tonnes, and is planned to increase to 30 million when the projects that are underway or planned are completed, hopefully by 2015,” says Neptune’s president Jim Belsheim, sitting forward at his desk inside his office close to the terminal.
Phosphate, which is similar to course beach sand, was the first product handled at the terminal when it opened in the mid-1960s, but importing stopped around 40 years later.
Now, a new storage building is being put up, replacing the original silos. The $80-million upgrade also includes new
equipment to transfer the rock from ships to the storage facility and then onto trains.
“Phosphate from Morocco is some of the purest in the world,” says Belsheim, adding Neptune will add around 115 more employees to its 300 in the next few years.
Half a dozen terminals line North Van’s waterfront, from Lions Gate Bridge east towards the Second Narrows. The scene is a drastic change from West Vancouver, which has purposely steered away from industry on its shoreline, opting to put in housing and parks instead.
Each terminal on the Burrard Inlet has a unique approach to exporting, creating 129,000 direct and indirect jobs.
The Cargill grain terminal, which handles wheat, barley durum and canola, sits beside Neptune, easily seen towering beside the Low Level Road. It is one of Canada’s largest agricultural processors, purchasing and selling grains, oilseed and specialty crops around the world.
Further west, Fibreco is one of the leading woodchip handling facilities in the world. It has been exporting to Japan for more than 20 years, and also ships wood pellets to Europe for use in bio-energy.
And Richardson International on the Low Level Road, for example, exports wheat, canola and barley to the Pacific Rim.
Like other North Van terminals, Neptune is expanding to meet the demands of Canadians and overseas markets.
To deal with extra activity, Neptune will have its own BC Hydro substation once power system upgrades are finished, removing the terminal from residential power supply, Booker tells The Outlook, pointing at a square concrete building in the middle of the lot. After the project is finished, power delivery will be improved for both Neptune and nearby neighbours.
“Every time we expand,” says Belsheim, “we paint the structure ‘Neptune blue’ so it stands out, and so everyone knows it’s new.”
Just like Neptune’s new N-ViroMotive engine, a blue low-emission locomotive used to move rail cars, he adds proudly.