Ports of Indiana smash previous annual record

The Avonborg ship is pictured docked at the Port of Indiana-Burns Harbor in Portage. The state's three ports handled 12.2 million tons of cargo last year, breaking the previous year's record by 28 percent.

The Times file photo

The Ports of Indiana, which includes Northwest Indiana's deepwater Lake Michigan harbor, handled a record 12.2 million tons of cargo in 2015.

Last year was the first in the Indianapolis-based port authority's history that Indiana's three ports handled more than 12 million tons. The tonnage surpassed the previous annual shipping record set in 2014 by a whopping 18 percent – about 1.8 million more tons of cargo.

The self-funding port authority operates the Port of Indiana-Burns Harbor, which is split between Burns Harbor and Portage, as well as two ports on the Ohio River in southern Indiana. 

"Our port companies and stevedores who attract cargo to our ports did a tremendous job in 2015," Ports of Indiana CEO Rich Cooper said. "They've become masterful in leveraging Indiana's ports' year-round maritime access to world markets as well as connections to multiple Class I railroads and major highways and interstates. Their business performance in this uncertain economy is highly commendable, particularly in the coal and steel sectors."

Coal shipments rose by 69 percent as compared to 2014, and dried distiller grains shot up by 64 percent over the same period. Cement increased by 17 percent, and limestone posted a 12 percent year-over-year gain.

Steel imports, which have led to layoffs and idlings of domestic mills nationwide, increased by 18 percent in Indiana in 2015, as compared to 2014. Nationally, cheap and often illegally subsidized imports grabbed a record 29 percent of the U.S. market share.

"While we savor the victories our port companies achieved in 2015, we are mindful of the challenges they continue to face with the pressure on fossil fuels and steel prices," Cooper said. "Despite the difficult economy, steel shipments at our ports still reached an all-time high in 2015 with many of our 28 steel companies processing steel for the record number of new cars and trucks sold by the U.S. auto industry last year."

The Port of Indiana-Burns Harbor handled a total of 2.8 million tons of cargo, including dozens of fermentation tanks for the booming craft brewing industry. The Port of Indiana-Jeffersonville across from Louisville got 2.8 million tons of cargo last year, while of the Port of Indiana-Mount Vernon near Evansville handled 6.6 million tons.

The ports are doing so well Gov. Mike Pence has proposed building a fourth port in the southern part of the state. Gary and East Chicago also have expressed interest in another deepwater Lake Michigan port.

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Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.