A strike at the Port of Vancouver could force sawmills to close and employees to be laid off as logs pile up at mills unable to get their forestry products across the Pacific Ocean.
Picket lines have been up outside the port since Feb. 26 as about 1,000 truckers refuse to work, citing low pay and undercutting by other truckers that has pushed many to work for a fraction of the posted rates. On Tuesday, the port confirmed truck traffic was only 15 per cent of normal.
While consumer products from iPads to patio furniture continue to be unloaded at the docks, stacks of containers grow wider and higher as few trucks come.
"The terminals will get full and vessels will not be able to discharge their cargo. Shippers will soon have to make choices about offloading that cargo in other ports," said Peter Xotta, a vice-president at the Port of Vancouver. "We're expecting in the next several days that the situation will get acute."
With as much as $885-million in cargo transiting through the port weekly, half of which is carried by trucks, the impacts are already being felt across the province.
Lumber mills across the north of B.C. have already been told to stop sending forest products to the Lower Mainland – the shipping areas where lumber is stuffed into empty containers are already full.
"They've got nowhere to go. Our concern as those facilities fill up is that if this goes on for a few more weeks, we might have to start curtailing operations," said James Gorman, president of the Council of Forest Industries.
The last strike by truckers at the port in 2005 lasted more than six weeks.
Over the past two weeks, hours for longshoremen at the port have been reduced as the volume of traffic has decreased. Mr. Xotta warned of a ripple effect across the province. "There is no point to produce stuff if it can't get to market," he said.
Forestry is B.C.'s largest manufacturing sector and contributed more than $10-billion to the provincial economy in 2012. Nearly half of the province's forest products are sent offshore, the vast majority through the Port of Vancouver.
With Canada's largest port largely closed to lumber, Mr. Gorman said that many companies are contemplating moving lumber through the Port of Prince Rupert. As an interim solution, some companies are looking for vacant lots to store their lumber while waiting out the strike.
An alternative exists to ship lumber through Seattle. However, lumber agreements with the United States create a number of administrative hurdles, Mr. Gorman said.
The strike at the port is a further, unwelcome hurdle for Prairie farmers.
Last Friday, the federal government ordered rail companies to add more grain cars to move a bumper crop from the Prairies that has sat in storage as a cold snap reduced train traffic. Though the grain is finally moving by rail, the strike raises the real possibility of another slowdown in getting the grain to market.
"We need every part of the system to run smoothly, up to now everything had moved smoothly except for the railways," said Wade Sobkowich, executive director of the Western Grain Elevator Association.
More than half of the grain harvest, 45 million tons, still has to move. Half of that harvest was destined for ports on the West Coast, either in Vancouver or Prince Rupert. Mr. Xotta called the current predicament a "perfect storm" as millions of tons of agricultural products will now have difficulty accessing terminals.
While no ships destined for Vancouver have yet to change their schedules, officials there expect that cancellations could begin to arrive within a few days unless the strike shows signs of ending.
"Retailers will have contingency plans if they can't get their products to market and some are starting to enact those plans," said John Parker-Jervis, a spokesman for the port.
Editors' note: A previous online version of this article and one published in print contained incorrect references to lumber as "logs". This version has been corrected.