Contemporary Ship Operations

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Published in Cross-Grained & Wily Waters: A Guide to the Piscataqua Maritime Region, W. Jeffery Bolster, Editor, 2002

PORTSMOUTH REMAINS A WORKING PORT and is proud of it. The coexistence of gritty port activities and coifed downtown retail businesses is increasingly rare in waterfront cities today, and Portsmouth owes much of its character to that contrast. A towering Peruvian salt ship along with a perfect fandango of swaying cranes and swinging buckets unloading thirty-five thousand tons of salt exists in close proximity to the boutiques, clothiers, and cafés that all too frequently displace working ports. The freshly painted Moran tugboats at a berth surrounded by shops and restaurants are emblematic of the city itself—a clean, working waterfront whose soul is largely intact.

The new millennium found the New Hampshire State Port Authority stuck between the Iron Age and the intermodal era. Its recent past as a scrap-metal storage and export facility has left its directors looking for cleaner cargoes, but the facility’s piers have been quiet during a slow transition. As a state-run entity, the Port Authority’s responsibilities include administration of a loan fund to aid the commercial fishing industry, orchestration of all dredging on state waterways, and management of fourteen hundred moorings on the New Hampshire side of the Piscataqua. The Port Authority plays a broad role in an otherwise healthy and steadily growing port.

“I’ve been working on this river for forty years and the tonnage has increased every year,’ said Portsmouth Pilot, Capt. Richard Holt, Sr. About five million tons of cargo crosses Piscataqua piers annually. Port facilities stretch from the drydocks of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard to the petroleum and dry-bulk terminals three miles upriver in Newington. Most of the coal and petroleum product, gas, kerosene, diesel, and asphalt—as well as propane, cement, and more salt are discharged at terminals lining the Newington shore.

Most of the Piscataqua’s cargoes are imports. Salt, spread by New England highway crews on winter roads› comes from Peru, the Bahamas, and Ireland. Gypsum comes from Halifax, Nova Scotia, and is pressed into sheetrock locally. Fuels for everything from jets to residential furnaces arrive here for distribution, quenching the region’s petroleum thirst.

The Piscataqua’s two principal export cargoes represent the height of contrast: fiber optic cable and tallow. Fiber-optic cable is no bigger around than a garden hose and can handle 240,000 telephone calls a second. Tallow is inedible grease made from boiled animal-fat renderings. More than eighty thousand miles of fiber optic cable produced at Tyco’s Simplex Technologies in Newington has been shipped down the Piscataqua and paid out across ocean bottoms around the world for telephone communications. Tons of tallow collected from deep-fat fryers all over New England are shipped from Sprague Energy, the terminal farthest upstream in Newington, bound to Europe and South America for cosmetics and animal feed.

The vitality of the working port is important to the region but with it comes the certainty of environmental impact and the risk of environmental disaster. Area residents got a wake-up call in 1996 when the tanker Provencebroke loose from the Schiller Station power plant in Newington while off-loading oil. The ship grounded at high tide across the Piscataqua on the Eliot shore with her tender belly teetering on a submarine ledge. Quick work by harbor pilots, tug crews, and Coast Guard personnel got her off while the tide was still full. The spill from parted hoses was limited to several thousand gallons, unanimously considered more than enough, but the incident demonstrated the need for the spill-response planning that had begun decades earlier.

In 1971, after years of informal meetings, terminal operators along the Piscataqua formed a cooperative to address local oil-spill prevention and clean-up strategies. The co-op evolved with better funding and technology following the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA 90), which requires all U.S. ports handling oil to have equipment and a plan to mitigate spills.

The Piscataqua River Cooperative has matured into a spill response partnership of the river’s oil terminals—Sprague Energy, Irving Oil, Public Service of New Hampshire, and the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. The co-op also works with the U.S. Coast Guard, the Maine and New Hampshire Departments of Environmental Services, and the University of New Hampshire. They maintain a fleet of specialized equipment, conduct bi-annual exercises with “spills” of popcorn or cornhusks to test gear and crews, and train personnel at the terminals to promote awareness and reduce the chances of human error.

Most of the people working on the Piscataqua’s commercial waterfront also live in the area and it is reassuring that terminal operators here began working on spill prevention and response plans thirty years before federal laws forced them to. Recognition of the essential relationship between the quality of the natural environment and quality of life generally will ensure the continued health of the Piscataqua’s estuaries, rivers, and coastline, even as the historic port retains a working waterfront. —NBB

Source5: RE5ource Guide to Worldwide Commerce (Portsmouth, NH: New Hampshire Port Authority, 1994); The Re5ponder (Portsmouth, NH: Coastal Oil Spill Action Committee, Fall 2000); Interviews with New Hampshire Port Authority General Manager Geno Marconi and Piscataqua River Harbor Pilot Capt. Richard Holt Sr., Nov/Dec 2000.