The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

Local News

January 9, 2013

Ashtabula’s coal shipments keep falling

Phase-out of coal-fired plants in Ontario to blame

Coal shipments from Ashtabula continued their decline in November, reflecting a trend at Lake Erie ports that service Ontario, Canada, power plants.

According to the Lake Carriers’ Association, coal shipments from Ashtabula were 135,702 net tons in November, or 38 percent of the tonnage shipped a year ago. Overall for January through November, Ashtabula shipped 1,569,187 net tons, compared to 2,744,583 for the same 11 months last year.

In 2008, Ashtabula shipped 4.2 million tons of coal during the entire year, according to association data. That earned the port the reputation of being the busiest of the five Lake Erie ports that ship coal and are tracked by the association. Toledo, the next closest, loaded 2.9 million tons in 2008.

Ashtabula has been losing ground since then. Sandusky, with 2.7 million tons loaded thus far this year, leads the pack in 2012.

The reason for Ashtabula’s decline is a combination of its specialized market and a phase-out of coal-fired power-generating plants across the lake in Ontario.

“Ashtabula is mostly utility coal,” said Kristopher Sandlin, system manager of coal transportation for Norfolk-Southern, which owns the Ashtabula coal dock.

Ontario began phasing out coal-fired generation in 2003 as a way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The plan is to completely eliminate all coal-fired generation in the province by 2014.

Sandlin said there is not a lot of other business that can be picked up to replace the utility coal shipments to Canada. He said it is “hard to tell” if the tonnage leaving Ashtabula has leveled off.

“The coal market is going up and down,” he said.

Both Ashtabula and Conneaut have long been associated with coal shipments to Canada. Both ports once had car ferry operations that transported rail cars full of coal across the lake — Ashtabula to Port Burwell and Conneaut to Port Dover. The Conneaut carferry business dried up in the early years of the Great Depression; Ashtabula’s hung on until 1958, when the Carferry Ashtabula sank. Freighters have continued carried coal across the lake to power plants long after the relatively inefficient carferries ended their runs.

Conneaut last shipped coal in 2008, when more than 1 million tons were loaded through the port. The Lake Carriers Association reports no shipments from Conneaut from 2009 to 2012. Buffalo has not shipped coal since 2009. Other coal shipping ports on Lake Erie are Toledo and Sandusky.

Toledo’s coal business suffered when Conrail was broken up and CSX was thereby given access to a coal dock at Ashtabula in 1999. Previously, Toledo had the only Great Lakes coal dock on the CSX transportation line. Shipping coal from Toledo to southern Ontario power plants was less efficient than shipping from ports at Ashtabula or Conneaut.

According to the Norfolk Southern website, the Ashtabula coal pier handles bituminous coals from Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The coal is destined for generating utilities and cement producers in Canada and the Great Lakes basin.

Shipments of coal at all Great Lakes ports totaled 2.9 million tons in November, which was an increase compared to October. Loadings at Lake Superior ports carried the increase, however. At Lake Erie terminals, shipments decreased by 24.5 percent in November, according to data from the association.

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