Port is safer, SPA says (copy)

Three stevedoring firms oversee the loading and unloading of cargo containers at the Port of Charleston (above). They want to form one company to handle the work. File

Three competitors that oversee the loading and off-loading of ships at the Port of Charleston are seeking to form a new company and combine their services, triggering both support and opposition along the local waterfront.

Ceres Marine Terminals, Ports America and SSA Atlantic  recently filed their "cooperative working agreement" for South Carolina and Georgia with the Federal Maritime Commission.

The stevedoring companies said the newly created firm, referred to as Newco in the 16-page filing, would enter into long-term deals with the state-run ports in Charleston and Savannah to "enhance operational coordination between those facilities and services" and to "provide more efficient and better quality service for users."

The S.C. State Ports Authority likes the idea. CEO Jim Newsome said the firms now operate using their own systems and procedures. A single streamlined stevedore would be more efficient and likely speed up how quickly ships are worked.

"It makes sense," Newsome said of the agreement. "We've been very supportive of it."

The proposed joint venture follows the consolidation wave that has swept though the maritime industry in recent years. Some lines have been sold outright, while major ship owners have formed three cooperative vessel-sharing alliances in response to overcapacity and low rates.

"It's become evident to me the supplier base would have to consolidate as well," Newsome said. "When you go from 20 lines to 10 under three alliances you probably don't need three stevedore firms to do that work." 

He stressed that the proposal originated with the three companies, not from the SPA and its competitor down the coast in Savannah.

"The ... stevedoring industry is just too fragmented, and they're acting to find a better structure," Newsome said. 

One early critic is the International Longshoremen's Association, which supplies labor to the stevedoring firms. 

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Kenny Riley, president of ILA Local 1422 in Charleston, said he was given little advance notice about the plan, which he described as lacking details. The union's main office in New Jersey sent a statement to the Federal Maritime Commission opposing the venture, he said.

"We support that position," Riley said Monday. "It raises concerns of antitrust, lack of competition and other issues."

Barbara Melvin, the ports authority's chief operating officer, told the maritime publication American Shipper that the SPA would negotiate with the newly created stevedoring firm to ensure ocean carriers are not charged unreasonable rates.

Riley said a one-stop shop wouldn't result in fewer cargo-handling jobs at the docks, citing the growth at the port, though some overlapping administrative and management positions would probably be combined and eliminated. 

The Federal Maritime Commission does not have the power to reject the agreement, though it can file a lawsuit if it finds the deal to be anti-competitive.

The agency requested more information about the joint venture last week. Once the companies respond, the commission will have 45 days to either let the agreement take effect or seek a court injunction.

Contact John McDermott at 843-937-5572 or follow him on Twitter at @byjohnmcdermott