A freighter sits along the dock in the Port of Indiana-Burns Harbor. Staff photo by Connor Burge
A freighter sits along the dock in the Port of Indiana-Burns Harbor. Staff photo by Connor Burge
PORTAGE — The Port of Indiana-Burns Harbor, Northwest Indiana's gateway to international commerce, has been booming as of late.

Cargo is up 24% so far this year to the deepwater port on Lake Michigan, rising 99% in July alone. The Port of Indiana-Burns Harbor is looking to make big investments, diversify beyond a heavy traffic in steel and become greener in its operations.

"Burns Harbor was the original port of the Ports of Indiana," Director Vanta Coda II said. "Now we have three. But it is still the crown jewel."

An economic impact study found Indianapolis-based quasi-governmental Ports of Indiana, which also operates two ports along the Ohio River in southern Indiana, has an $8.2 billion contribution to the state's economy. The Port of Indiana-Burns Harbor — a hub of traffic from semitrailer, trains, river barges, lake freighters and hulking international vessels known as salties that pass through the St. Lawrence Seaway to the Great Lakes — accounts for $5.2 billion of that economic activity in the state.

"Northwest Indiana has 45 miles of coastline along Lake Michigan," Coda told a visiting crowd of maritime professionals who toured the port as part of an American Great Lakes Ports Association conference that Gov. Eric Holcomb spoke at. "And somehow, someway the state of Indiana figured out how to capture over 50% of the economic value activity on the Great Lakes."

Tucked between massive U.S. Steel and Cleveland-Cliffs steel mills and a Norfolk Southern rail yard, the 600-acre maritime industrial park is home to about 30 private businesses like grain processor Cargill, steelmaker NLMK and stevedore Metro Ports. It's looking to fill about 70 acres of unused land.

Founded more than a half-century ago, the port has been heavily focused on steel since its inception. Northwest Indiana accounts for a quarter of the nation's steel production, and the port also receives steel imports from around the globe, which are often processed at service centers on site.

"Northwest Indiana prides itself on making 25% of the nation's steel. The ore that comes from the Minnesota Iron Range makes its way down here," Coda said. "This is an important part of the American infrastructure. This is an important part of the Great Lakes."

Russia-based electric arc furnace steel manufacturer NLMK is the largest employer inside the port, said Bob Brown, NLMK's environmental, health and safety director. The company has invested $70 million in its operations at the Port of Indiana-Burns Harbor over the last few years.

The Porter County steelmaker produced 850,000 tons of steel a year from recycled scrap, about 85% of which comes from the community. It can make up to 1.1 million tons of steel products annually, including with raw steel imported from the Black Sea.

"We make hot-rolled products," he said. "Hot-rolled steel is what you'd see in a car frame, things not normally out in the public view. It's sold to various customers — in the automotive industry, furniture makers, things of that nature. About 25% of the products we melt and roll stay within this port. That's a heck of a deal. It saves a lot on transportation, which is very good business model with our customers right here."

Investment, growth

The port plans to invest $30 million to expand its cargo-handling capacity over the next four years, including by adding more multimodal connections and spur rail lines. The port and its tenants also are investing in green technologies, including dust suppression systems, electric security vehicles and a truck marshaling yard where semitrailers can park instead of idle, cutting down on carbon emissions.

Metro Ports just invested in two new dust suppression machines, Operations Manager Steve Farmer said.

"When we handle cargoes that generate dust, we use those to contain that dust," he said. "They're pretty substantial machines. They cover 550 square feet. Our typical ship is 700 square feet, and we have two of them. If we're working in an environment that's hot and dry with a dustier cargo, we will put those machines into place to suppress our fugitive dust.

"Looking forward, we're looking at infrastructure improvements and looking as much as possible to make all our equipment all electric. There is no current electric technology for field loaders right now."

Cargill also has been investing in the port, where it has been a mainstay and one of the bigger tenants since 1981. The company's Burns Harbor operations ship corn, soybeans and wheat around the world — and now also organic corn and beans.

"This facility is unique in that it can dump rail cars, load rail cars, dump trucks, load trucks, load ships, vessels, salties, load barges," plant manager Jared Bruggman said. "Last year, this facility loaded about three salties that went overseas to Europe, Greece and Spain. We just loaded non-GMO ship that made the short hop up to Montreal. We loaded 24 grain barges in the last year. We have a rail program coming online so that will be another option for us to move grain out of this facility to wherever the customer needs it."

Part of the hope in the investments is to diversify beyond steel, which now accounts for more than 80% of cargo by weight passing through the port. Port Director Ryan McCoy, who worked in steel and agricultural processing for the first few decades of his career before taking over the port director job in April, said the hope was to bolster project cargo and bulk cargo given the ups and downs of the highly cyclical steel industry.

Last week, semitrailers were hauling off massive windmill blades for wind farms.

"I see a lot of opportunity in this port," McCoy said. "It's a very dynamic port. I'm very excited about this diversity and to see what this port can do. It's a very steel-based facility, but that's not all that we do.

"You see a lot of coil, a lot of scrap metal, and a lot of big, fancy bulk cargo that we all love to see going through. But what you don't see the liquids, the fertilizer, the asphalt. That's what we don't talk about. But we move a lot of that here. We move a lot of that bulk cargo through this facility. It's not big and fancy. It doesn't make the paper."

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