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The ship Anna Maersk is docked at Roberts Bank port in Vancouver, on June 29, 2019.JASON REDMOND/Reuters

The Port of Vancouver wants to hire a new entrant to become the terminal operator at a planned container project that would be semi-automated and employ 800 full-time union workers.

In April, the federal government approved the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority’s plans for Roberts Bank Terminal 2, or RBT2.

At the Port of Vancouver, GCT Global Container Terminals Inc. runs the Deltaport and Vanterm container sites, while DP World PLC operates the Centerm container site and the multipurpose Fraser Surrey Docks.

Victor Pang, the port authority’s interim chief executive officer, said preference will be given to hiring a new entrant as terminal operator for RBT2.

“There’s a certain level of market share, dynamic, that we want to maintain at this gateway,” Mr. Pang said in an interview on Monday. “Part of what we need to do is to make sure that there’s competitiveness in that gateway.”

Global companies that would qualify as new entrants to Vancouver could include APM Terminals, PSA International Pte Ltd. and Hutchison Port Holdings Ltd.

The International Longshore & Warehouse Union Canada, or ILWU, which represents waterfront employees, said earlier this year that no terminal operator stepped forward yet to oversee RBT2.

ILWU president Rob Ashton has raised concerns over the magnitude of semi-automation to load and unload cargo.

The $3.5-billion RBT2 project requires the construction of an artificial island near Delta, B.C., located about 30 kilometres south of Vancouver. Upon completion of RBT2, container capacity would rise by nearly 50 per cent at Canada’s largest port.

The project is subject to 370 legally binding conditions from the federal government and still needs approval from the B.C. government. The first phase of RBT2 is scheduled for completion by 2033, followed by a second phase to be finished by 2036.

Ecojustice Canada, the country’s largest environmental law charity, is opposing RBT2 in Federal Court. Ecojustice said the new container terminal would threaten sensitive habitat in the Fraser River estuary and harm endangered southern resident killer whales.

Container volumes already were sagging this year before members of the ILWU went on strike for two weeks in July, disrupting cargo shipments in the Vancouver region, Vancouver Island and the Prince Rupert area in Northern British Columbia.

Mr. Pang said the Port of Vancouver is undeterred by recent drops in container volumes, believing that the long-term forecast of increased shipping traffic means RBT2 is still needed.

The shipping industry deploys large vessels to carry containers, which are reusable steel boxes measured as 20-foot equivalent units, or TEUs.

More than two million TEUs of exports and imports went through the Port of Vancouver in the first eight months of this year, down 18 per cent compared with the same period of 2022, at the tail end of a container shipping boom.

The downward trend also hit the Port of Prince Rupert, where more than 478,000 TEUs were handled in the first eight months of 2023, a decline of 32 per cent from the same period last year.

“What we saw through the pandemic, frankly, was record transpacific volumes. We saw a massive surge in consumer spending on this side of the Pacific,” Shaun Stevenson, CEO at the Prince Rupert Port Authority, said in an interview on Monday. “What we see coming out through 2023 is a rebalancing.”

The Port of Prince Rupert is collaborating with DP World to explore the possibility of building a second container terminal, which would be in addition to DP World running the existing Fairview site.

“We felt that there’s more value and more optimization of the supply chain through having an integrated system of a single terminal operator,” Mr. Stevenson said.

Before the labour dispute, the Port of Vancouver handled 75.9 million tonnes of cargo in the first six months of this year, up 11 per cent compared with the first half of 2022. Grain exports doubled while auto imports jumped 28 per cent.

Mr. Pang, who is also the Vancouver port authority’s chief financial officer, replaced Robin Silvester on an interim basis on June 30. Mr. Silvester stepped down as CEO after more than 14 years at the helm.

Nearly 75 per cent of union members who cast their ballots in early August voted in favour of accepting the terms of a four-year contract that was reached on July 30. Eligible voting members had rejected an earlier tentative pact that was endorsed by the union’s leadership.

The membership’s ratification capped five turbulent weeks in labour relations that upended the flow of a wide range of products such as imports of consumer goods and exports of raw materials.

The BC Maritime Employers Association ratified the pact on July 31. The new collective agreement provides fresh wording meant to address union concerns about the contracting out of jobs by companies belonging to the BCMEA.

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