PORTAGE | In 2013, the Port of Indiana-Burns Harbor was the busiest it had been in years.
The deepwater port on Lake Michigan's southern shore handled 2.5 million tons of cargo, the highest amount since 2006. Shipments rose 16 percent to the second highest amount since 1998.
Port officials are optimistic the port will continue to make progress after shipments have grown significantly in five out of the last six years.
"Steel, limestone, road salt and coal were all significant contributors to the successful year we experienced at the port," said Rick Heimann, port director for the Port of Indiana-Burns Harbor. "It is difficult to predict what lies ahead in 2014, but if we see continued growth in the manufacturing sector that will certainly have a positive impact on port shipments of steel and other raw materials. Right now most area companies seem to be forecasting that 2014 will be similar to 2013 and slightly better in some cases."
The port is a major economic driver in Northwest Indiana, generating $4.3 billion a year in economic activity and supporting 33,000 jobs. It's the second busiest port in the state, after the Port of Indiana-Mount Vernon on the Ohio River near Evansville.
Indiana's port system, which consists of the Portage docks and two ports in Southern Indiana, saw shipments increase by 20 percent last year to 8.3 million tons, the third highest amount since it was founded 52 years ago.
"Our ports finished the year on a record pace, which does create some optimism for 2014," CEO Rich Cooper said.
Last year, shipments in and out of the Port of Indiana-Burns Harbor were 23 percent higher than the average of the previous five years. Tonnage rose 10 percent the previous year.
The port handles international cargo that passes through the St. Lawrence Seaway and benefited from an increasingly robust international trade. U.S. exports hit a record $58.4 billion in December, and the $38.4 billion in imported services also was the highest on record, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Stevedores handled about 90 ships, 320,000 trucks and 12,000 rail cars. They also handled 415 barges that passed through the Chicago waterway system to the southern tip of Lake Michigan, linking the port to 38 states and the Gulf of Mexico.
"Companies located at our ports contribute significantly to Indiana's economy and the general welfare of those living in and around port communities," Heimann said. "Having access to both the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico through our nation's two largest inland waterways is very important to our port companies and the regional economy. We truly appreciate all the efforts of each and every company that contributed to the port’s growth this year."
Road salt shipments jumped 58 percent last year over 2012. Steel cargo rose by 15 percent, and fertilizer increased by 11 percent. Limestone and coal — two crucial ingredients in steelmaking — rose by 28 percent and 16 percent respectively.
Investments continue to be made in the port as it gets busier. The port commission invested $1.7 million on new sewer and rail infrastructure, including reconstructing the main railroad line.
Carmeuse Lime & Stone, one of the tenant companies at the port, also is investing $10 million in two new grinding mills. The company gets limestone shipped from Lake Michigan, grinds it into powder and ships it to NIPSCO, which uses it to reduce sulfur emissions at its coal-fired plants. The investment will increase capacity by 300,000 tons per year.