The Santiago Pearl cargo vessel tied up for nearly a week at Union Pier Terminal in Charleston earlier this month, loading and unloading tons of metal for Nucor Steel.

Union Pier activity

13 cargo ships have called on the terminal since July 1.

89,422 tons of cargo moved at Union Pier through March.

Cargo includes wire rod, wood pulp, steel billets, steel coils and steel pipe

State Ports Authority

The project included crews loading 18,000 tons of steel billets and coils for export. The job led to about three weeks of labor for dock workers before the ship arrived April 11, the State Ports Authority said.

The activity is the latest example of the sharp uptick in heavy cargo flowing across Union Pier.

It wasn't what the SPA had envisioned four years ago, when it propsoed a major redevelopment of the prime 65-acre site. That plan would eliminate the downtown pier's maritime uses, aside from a disputed cruise terminal proposed for the north end of the property.

In anticipation of that, the SPA began shifting much of its "breakbulk" cargo to the nearby Columbus Street Terminal. But those goods, which don't fit into standard-size shipping containers, have been returning to Union Pier, temporarily at least, because the redevelopment plan has been stalled by litigation.

The strengthening economy is fueling growth at Union Pier and the rest of the SPA's terminals.

"There's a significant increase in manufacturing in the country and you can see it, this supports it," said Jim Newsome, chief executive of the SPA.

The SPA reported it handled 692,338 pier containers at Mount Pleasant and North Charleston terminals since the fiscal year began July 1. That's up nearly 5 percent from the corresponding year-earlier period.

Breakbulk cargo is up 4 percent to 507,725 tons. And that number is expected to continue increasing for the rest of the fiscal year.

Union Pier handled about 18 percent of the breakbulk business, or more than two times the volume from the year-earlier period.

"Union Pier recently had the opportunity to handle additional cargo in the breakbulk segment, and we expect strong growth of noncontainerized cargo volumes in the last quarter of our fiscal year," Newsome said.

At the same time, vessels are tying up to the downtown pier with greater frequency. Four cargo ships called on Union Pier the week of April 7, which is above the average of one or two a month, the SPA reported.

Among the shipments are high-carbon rods that South Carolina tiremakers need.

"What we're seeing is more cargo come in that is new to Charleston and one is the high-carbon wire rods, and these are explanations for these numbers," said Brad Stroble, the SPA's sales and marketing manager for breakbulk cargo.

More predictable

Noncontainerized cargo is a niche compared to the SPA's container business, which accounts for about 75 percent of the maritime agency's annual revenue. And the breakbulk market historically has been an unpredictable business that's ebbed and flowed with specific sectors of the economy, such as new construction.

But that's changing.

One factor is the rebound in U.S. manufacturing.

"We've morphed from sort of catch-what-you-can when the market is right and the price is right and sourcing is right, to now a very predictable cargo," Stroble said.

That includes Greig Star Shipping, which uses Union Pier for its monthly breakbulk service from South America. The company announced last year that the monthly service provides steel and wood product imports from South America.

Charleston joins other U.S. ports that are seeing increases in noncontainerized cargo. That group includes the Georgia Ports Authority, a chief competitor of the SPA. In March, its breakbulk volume jumped 24 percent.

"It's a fairly strong recovery now and I'd say as with most growth, it's not one single driver behind it, but it's multiple sources," said Curtis Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority.

Foltz cited as one example the uptick in U.S. manufacturing, which in turn drives more demand for breakbulk products like rubber and steel.

Stroble of the SPA said the Port of Charleston saw more breakbulk goods cross its docks as companies began investing in new factories, leading to what he called "the perfect cycle."

"It's a good cycle when the materials are coming in to build the plant," he said. "Then we bring in the raw materials to make whatever they make, and then we export those materials through containers or breakbulk, and that's the perfect cycle."

Union Pier, for example, handles steel coils, a Slinky-like material used in tire manufacturing, which became a huge industry in South Carolina. Bridgestone, for example, recently built a new 1.5-million-square-foot tire plant in Aiken County. Michelin North America recently announced construction of its eighth Palmetto State factory - an 800,000-square-foot facility in Anderson County for production of its large-scale "Earthmover" tires that are sold and shipped around the world.

The metals business is what drew the recent Union Pier call by the Santiago Pearl.

The ship was in town to transport materials for Nucor Steel, which has mills in Berkeley County and the Pee Dee region.

Jeff Holliman, Nucor's export product manager, said the Charlotte-based company has been working to sell more of its products abroad.

"Even during slow domestic growth, our (South Carolina) ... divisions have expanded exports by partnering with several firms, including the S.C. State Ports Authority," Holliman said. "In our most recent shipment to the Caribbean, we took advantage of the new, indoor storage facility at Union Pier. This, coupled with our steel-bar business, allowed us to ship flat-rolled steel to the Caribbean for the first time in several years."

The additional activity also has required more workers and equipment, including rented cranes at Union Pier. Last year, the SPA's board approved $456,000 to dredge silt from the ship berth. Also, the SPA has had to shuffle staff from its other terminals.

The increase has meant more work for the International Longshoremen's Association, whose members move cargo on and off vessels. The union has been adding work credentials since last year.

"We rode the curve down and now we're riding it back up," said Ken Riley, president of the ILA Local 1422 in Charleston.

Temporary measure

Cargo movements were supposed to be a thing of the past for Union Pier. The waterfront site has been eyed for redevelopment for at least two decades.

The latest concept came to light in February 2010. The plan included tearing down the aging buildings at the pier and opening up some 50 acres of valuable waterfront land for new housing, commercial space and public uses.

It also called for moving the existing cruise ship terminal near the end of Market Street to a former warehouse space farther north. But local neighborhood associations and groups like the Coastal Conservation League have filed federal and state lawsuits to block the move, saying it will bring more tourists, congestion and pollution to the area.

The revival of the pier's cargo business doesn't affect the quality of life in the area the way cruise ships do, said Dana Beach, executive director of Coastal Conservation League. "If it was a matter of cruise ships or cargo ships, cargo ships are more preferred because they have a very small additional negative impact," Beach said. "Cruise ships close streets, cargo ships don't."

Newsome acknowledged that Union Pier is a temporary solution for the SPA's breakbulk cargo-handling needs. He added that the agency will be exploring alternatives, just as it did for its container business. In that case, it's building a new terminal at the old Navy base in North Charleston.

"As we invest in the Navy base for container growth, we will need additional resources for noncontainerized support for the ports" Newsome said.