Port strives to accommodate Billiton

Commissioners likely to keep Terminal 5 land off market as plans firm up

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

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The Port of Vancouver is poised to take another important step in its ongoing effort to enable Australian mining giant BHP Billiton to build an export facility at Terminal 5 to ship fertilizer.

The port’s three elected commissioners -- Nancy Baker, Jerry Oliver and Brian Wolfe -- are expected this month to review a proposal to continue to keep the land the company wants to lease -- up to 60 acres of Terminal 5 -- off the market.

That would allow BHP Billiton to take certain engineering steps, stabilize soil in the area and conduct other preconstruction work on the project. It ultimately plans to export potash, used in fertilizer, from the terminal.

Extending the port’s current exclusivity agreements with BHP Billiton also would allow the port to dress up Terminal 5 with rail, utilities, water and other infrastructure improvements.

“We won’t market the property,” Theresa Wagner, communications chief for the port, said in explaining how the two parties are working to move the project forward. “It allows (BHP Billiton) to continue their due diligence, their analysis of the site.”

There’s plenty at stake.

Wagner said the port anticipates BHP Billiton’s construction will create temporary construction jobs “in the thousands.”

The port will have better construction job estimates once it has a fuller sense of what BHP Billiton will build and how much it will invest in the project, Wagner said.

As to permanent jobs, BHP Billiton expects to employ about 40 people at its planned Terminal 5 facility.

The port announced its partnership with BHP Billiton in August 2010, saying it had reached a preliminary agreement with the company.

Port leaders hope BHP Billiton will sign a final lease with the port by the end of this year, Wagner said.

The company could then launch construction late this year or in early 2013. BHP Billiton, headquartered in Melbourne, Australia, wants to have its export enterprise up and running by 2015.

Plans call for the company to transport potash by rail to the port, where it would then be loaded onto ships bound primarily for Asia. The company would haul the potash from a mine it’s developing in Canada’s Saskatchewan Basin.

Potash is a nonflammable salt considered to be nontoxic to aquatic organisms by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, according to the port. At Terminal 5, the potash would be stored in fully enclosed facilities.

The port, which celebrates its 100th year in operation this year, currently handles about 5 million metric tons of freight annually. With BHP Billiton coming and United Grain Corp. expanding, the port will, by the early 2020s, handle 15 million metric tons of freight annually.

Aaron Corvin: http://twitter.com/col_econ;http://on.fb.me/AaronCorvin; 360-735-4518; aaron.corvin@columbian.com.