- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 23, 2003

They stand like empty Everests of trade, mountains of shipping containers stacked seven or eight high, over hundreds of acres of industrial land around the East Coast's busiest port. The shipping container surplus around Port Newark and the adjacent Port Authority Marine Terminal at Elizabeth is a byproduct of the U.S. trade deficit.
Because of the deficit, the port takes in and unloads more containers than it can fill up and ship out. And because it's cheaper for freight companies to buy new containers overseas than to ship empties back from the United States to be reloaded, the result is stockpiling that has altered the local landscape.
The problem is not so severe in all East Coast ports. While the Port of Baltimore experiences a higher import than export level, shipping containers are stacked three high, said port spokeswoman Judi Scioli.
"We don't stack containers higher than four, and they are all in the terminal. You won't see them being stored anywhere else," she said.
To the aesthetically imaginative, the boxy foothills of blue, yellow and ochre containers might look good. For Carlos Rodriguez, a 29-year-old auto mechanic at a salvage yard near a container lot on Doremus Avenue, the stacks look better than the trash heaps some of them replaced.
"It looks cleaner," Mr. Rodriguez said. "They used to dump a lot of garbage there."
But to others, the mounting containers from Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and elsewhere are eyesores that are gradually blotting out the skylines of Newark and Manhattan.
"You don't want to get up in the morning and look over toward the river and see those containers," said Newark City Council member Augusto Amador.
Despite the short-term economic advantages of stockpiling, planners say the containers could have negative long-term effects on the environment, traffic, employment and even the viability of the port by discouraging the cleanup and development of contaminated lots where the containers are stacked.
"These properties can have a much higher utility, a much higher use, because they're prime distribution locations," said John Hummer, director of freight initiatives at the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority, which approves federal funding of transportation projects. "And instead, the properties are being used for this, which we don't feel is appropriate."
Mr. Amador worked with one storage company, Palmer Industries, to move more than 1,000 containers stacked along the Passaic River. And he said the city is looking into limiting the height of container stacks, as long as jobs at the port aren't affected.
Some observers say the containers stand in the way of improving the area around the port.
A study by the transportation planning authority with the New Jersey Institute of Technology found that development of warehouse and distribution centers at the port rather than along suburban or rural highways an hour or more away would reduce highway truck traffic and clean up the contaminated former industrial sites, known as brownfields, where many of the containers now rest.
Such development would also create jobs "for an urban work force that desperately needs it," said Jim Mack, a brownfields specialist at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.
As an example of how stockpiling can conflict with development, the New Jersey Institute of Technology study found that the owner of a 13-acre site where a developer had offered to build a 330,000-square-foot distribution center received a competing offer by a container storage company.
The storage company's proposal, for a 10-year lease at $3,000 per month per acre, was doubly attractive in that it allowed the property owner to avoid the costly cleanup that a warehouse proposal would entail. The companies were not named.
Another brownfield site leased for container storage, a 37-acre lot that was once a tar-refining plant, is owned by chemical giant DuPont.
Rick Straitman, spokesman for DuPont Corporate Remediation Group, said the company "would like to see the site developed" and that it is working with the state Department of Environmental Protection on a cleanup plan.
In the meantime, he said, DuPont leased the site because, "as you know, a piece of vacant land attracts dumping."
Indicative of the nation's trade deficit, the Newark-Elizabeth complex unloaded more than 1.6 million full containers in the first 11 months of 2002, but shipped out 688,000, said Steve Coleman, a spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the ports.
Mr. Coleman said the agency does not track the number of empties around the port, although estimates run to about 150,000.
"That's why we're working with the shippers to see if there's any way that they can move these containers back to their point of origin," Mr. Coleman said. "But, obviously, it's an economic issue."
And as long as shippers store the containers on private property, he added, "There's nothing we can do other than try to convince them."
But some questioned the port authority's eagerness to curb stockpiling. Port agencies around the country compete for cargo, and the availability of container storage space is a strong selling point, said Joseph Dorto, general manager of Virginia International Terminals, or VIT, which operates Virginia's ports.
"It's a very competitive business, and everybody's looking for an edge," Mr. Dorto said.
At the Port of Hampton Roads, VIT has imposed a quota on containers on port property, Mr. Dorto said. He said the move improved port operations by creating more space for truck movement.
But quotas would be less applicable to Newark-Elizabeth, where most containers are on private property around the port. After VIT imposed the quotas, which are disliked by shippers, "we weren't the most popular guys on the dock," Mr. Dorto said.
Officials of Palmer and other container-storage companies failed to return calls or declined to talk publicly about the issue. Some said privately that the container debate is a public relations fight they cannot win.
Sam Crane, a spokesman for Maher Terminals, which loads and unloads containers at Port Newark, said as long as there is a trade deficit, there will always be empties.
"We're the largest consuming region in the country, and some would say in the world, so that's the reason," Mr. Crane said. "We're always going to have a surplus of containers."
Staff writer Marguerite Higgins contributed to this report.

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