Port of Charleston doing brisk business in exports

BMW X5 sport utility vehicles built in the upstate South Carolina are parked along the S.C. Port's Authority's Union Pier terminal dock awaiting export .

During these times of economic woes, with consumer spending in a slump and imports staying at home, there is a silver lining at the Port of Charleston — exports are up.

Thanks in large part to the weak U.S. dollar, February was the second-best month in the history of the State Ports Authority for exports of loaded containers.

Also, exports of breakbulk cargo — goods that are difficult or impossible to transport in standard-size containers, such as automobiles — are up by a whopping 77 percent.

The flow of goods across Charleston's docks, many of which are products of Palmetto State manufacturers or suppliers, has helped lessen the impact of a general downturn in cargo shipments nationwide.

Export business at International Forwarders Inc. in Charleston, which arranges international transportation and other services for importers and exporters, is up at least 20 percent, said Jack Daniel, president.

The rush to cash in on exports has seen the West Ashley company handle some unusual goods, Daniel said. They include grain transported in containers, and scrap rubber, metals and plastics that are melted down at overseas plants and resold as raw materials. "We're seeing things exported that we've never seen before," he said.

The commodities are going "all over," Daniel said, from Europe to South America.

The U.S. dollar continues to hover near its long-term lows against the two currencies where most of the exports are destined: northern Europe. At 0.64 euro, the dollar is close to its all-time low of around 0.62 against the multi-nation currency. And at about 0.51 British pound, the greenback is hovering just above a 27-year low of about 0.50.

While importers are left paying the price, the dollar has made U.S. products more affordable abroad and helped make South Carolina a top 10 exporting state.

Last year, the value of Palmetto State exports totaled more than $16 billion, a 21.6 percent increase over 2006; they were shipped to 198 countries.

That export growth in 2007 ranked the state ninth among 54 U.S. states and territories, and No. 1 in the Southeast, according to the state Commerce Department.

February's peak for containerized exports, beaten only by March 2007, also marked the first time in five years that loaded exports exceeded loaded imports, said Byron Miller, SPA public relations director.

The port handled the equivalent of 63,023 20-foot-long containers, a standard shipping industry measurement, in February.

That was up 14 percent from the same month in 2007. Leading goods exported in containers are forestry products, such as paper; specialty chemicals for use in manufacturing processes; and auto parts.

On the breakbulk side, export tonnage through SPA facilities is up 77 percent through the first nine months of the fiscal year, thanks to an upturn in exports of vehicles, boats and other cargo, including power-generation equipment.

The port handled more than 227,000 tons of breakbulk cargo between July 2007 and March 2008, compared with nearly 128,000 tons during the same period the previous year. The SPA's fiscal year ends June 30.

In June, the nation's ports enter the peak season for imports as retailers gear up for back-to-school shopping in August, then restock for Halloween and the end-of-year holidays. In the meantime, maritime officials in Charleston are grateful for the swing in trade.

"Exports are up, and we'd like to see them grow more," Miller said.