Imported aluminum and steel represent a tiny share of the cargo handled through the Port of Toledo docks if only weight is considered.
But in terms of cargo value and economic activity, the two metals’ importance far exceeds their weight, which made Joe Cappel, the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority’s vice president for business development, nervous when President Trump announced across-the-board tariffs of 25 percent on foreign steel and 10 percent on foreign aluminum last week.
That was relieved somewhat Thursday when the President said Canadian and Mexican products would be exempted for the time being, although he held out the possibility they too could be involved if attempts to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement dissatisfy him.
“The whole Great Lakes shipping industry and economy is anxiously watching” where the Trump tariffs might lead, Mr. Cappel said.
“The American Great Lakes Ports Association expects the White House to release additional detail of the Administration’s proposed steel tariffs next week,” said Steven Fisher, executive director of the American Great Lakes Ports Association. “Once the scope of the tariffs are understood, Great Lakes ports will be better able to estimate the plan’s impacts.”
According to port statistics, 296,044 tons of miscellaneous and general cargo crossed Toledo’s docks during 2017 — a little more than 3 percent of the port’s total cargo by weight.
But compared with high-tonnage goods like coal, iron ore, stone, and grain — the handling of which is highly mechanized — the general-cargo sector generates a disproportionate amount of economic activity: from labor for unloading ships, to warehousing, to onward trucking or trains.
And last year, 235,917 tons of aluminum — all of it from Canada — entered the United States on barges arriving at Toledo’s port, representing just under four-fifths of general-cargo activity.
Nearly all the rest, Mr. Cappel said, was Canadian steel — about 42,500 tons of it from a mill at Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.
Toledo’s aluminum trade is largely based on its London Metals Exchange designation as an official delivery point for the metal.
Mr. Cappel said he’s not sure how the Toledo port’s status as a Foreign Trade Zone, which waives taxes on goods that stop there en route between a foreign origin and destination, might play if tariffs shift trade patterns.
“It could drive more traffic to Foreign Trade Zones,” he said. “It’s all pretty speculative.”
Tariffs on Canadian steel, meanwhile, also could affect coal cargoes through Toledo.
Of the 2.68 million tons of coal loaded onto ships at the local port last year, just over 1.9 million tons went to Canada. With Canadian utilities having phased out coal-fired electricity generation, Mr. Cappel said he believes all of it was for steelmaking.
And if tariffs on steel and aluminum imports prompt the affected nations — whether Canada or others — to retaliate against American products, that could also hurt Toledo’s port. Grain in particular is a major export for Toledo.
“There are a lot of supply chains in manufacturing and industry that are based on these free-trade agreements,” Mr. Cappel said.
The tariffs are not without supporters on the Great Lakes. Besides domestic steel producers, they would favor the American-flag portion of the Great Lakes vessel fleet, which relies on American steel mills for a large amount of its ore, coking coal, and limestone traffic.
“We support the President’s effort here,” said Glen Nekvasil, vice president of the Lake Carriers’ Association representing U.S.-flag lake vessel operators. “I can’t predict what the impact would be, but each ton of steel represents about 1½ tons of ore, 400 pounds of stone, and some quantity of coke.
“That means that every ton of unfairly traded steel accounts for about two tons of raw materials we carry,” Mr. Nekvasil said before adding, “China’s excess steel capacity is greater than the total capacity of the American steel industry.”
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