The sky isn't falling, but Kim Puzey's waters are definitely troubled.

The general manager of the Port of Umatilla predicted in late July that news of Portland's loss of Hyundai Merchant Marine, a major shipping company, didn't signal darker times ahead - "the weather is just changing a bit," he said.

Then "K" Line America, the second of the three import and export shipping companies moving from the Port of Portland to countries in Asia, announced a few weeks ago it, too, intended to close shop. Hyundai will leave the port next month, "K" Line America expects to pull out in January.

While Hyundai handles the shipping for just part of the containers of agriculture and other commodity products exported out of Eastern Oregon, "K" Line America handles the bulk of the Port of Umatilla's business, Puzey said - about 100 containers a week.

How that product will now get to its buyers was the main discussion at a public forum Thursday in Portland, which Puzey and his counterpart at the Port of Morrow, Gary Neal, attended. The event was planned for about 50 people, said Bruce Pokarney, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Agriculture, but more than 200 showed up.

"K" Line America's announcement was a surprise to the Port of Portland, Pokarney said.

The issue now for customers of the Columbia River's port system is "pretty critical because we export so much," Pokarney said. "Our primary market is the Pacific Rim."

The Port of Morrow will not be affected as much as the Port of Umatilla, Neal said, because the majority of its shipping is not done with the help of the Port of Portland.

But the majority of agricultural products produced locally - wheat, hay, onions, frozen vegetables and potatoes - are sold to Japan and Korea. Much is trucked or barged to ports in either Los Angeles or Washington, rather than through the Port of Portland.

In fact, a recent study by the ODA said water transport was being underutilized by Oregon agricultural producers. Still, some local companies are going to feel a pinch.

Products transported via water from the Port of Umatilla, the Port of Morrow and the Port of Arlington were valued at about $196 million a year in 1998, the latest data the ports have combined, according to Neal, Port of Morrow's general manager.

That revenue supports about 3,111 jobs, he said.

Greg Cook, general manager of Circle C Farms in Hermiston, said everyone who does business through the Port of Portland is "feeling a little bit left behind."

"There were three major carries and now we're going to be left with only one to pick up all the business," Cook said. "Basically, that will be impossible."

The options discussed Thursday at the forum are not comforting. At most they require a Herculean effort by the ports and the state to attract more imports - and that means convincing companies like Wal-Mart to change their pattern of business. At the very least, those who had been using the river will see a double to triple increase in their transportation costs.

A container full of product barged down the Columbia costs about $290, including the cost of returning an empty container to fill, Neal said. To truck that same container, for instance, (companies could also transport via rail or barge to one of the farther ports) might push the cost to $700.

"The message from agriculture is 'help,' Pokarney said. "The profit margins are so thin these days, this is the kind of thing that could make it difficult to stay in business."

Cook said he is fortunate because he hedged his costs. About half of the hay he exports, or two containers a day, is transported to Seattle by truck. The rest, about 10 to 15 containers a week, travel the river.

He said he split his wares because doing business with the Port of Portland has always been unstable.

"This has been an on-going problem," he said.

Puzey, too, said the fact that shipping companies are leaving the ports is not in and of itself a new thing. What is new is that two providers are pulling out at the same time and giving just four months for the other ports along the river to work with their customers on alternative routes.

"I am concerned about whether or not that can happen by the first of the year," he said. "It's not very long to get this job done."

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