Still today marine transport is an efficient and environmentally sound means of transporting goods. And it’s the mining industry that is fuelling much of the demand for shipping along Canada’s sea coast, rivers
and lakes.

“We move a lot of mining commodities, such as zinc, copper concentrate and nickel,” says Blair McKeil, CEO of McKeil Marine, which has been in the shipping business for more than a half Century. “Our work in Labrador and the Arctic, in particular is growing with more mineral finds.”

Natural highways

It’s not just the raw materials that McKeil transports from the mine for processing; they also ship all the equipment and materials needed to build the mine. In fact, McKeil recently moved an entire smelter that was built in modules in the southern U.S to a remote location in Newfoundland.

Given the cost of labour, lack of housing for workers and other resources at the site, it made economic sense to build the smelter elsewhere and ship it.

“Waterways are nature’s natural highways. One barge would equal 300-500 trucks, and so when it comes to volume we can offer the best value, and it also makes sense from an environmental perspective."

“Waterways are nature’s natural highways,” says McKeil. “One barge would equal 300-500 trucks, and so when it comes to volume we can offer the best value, and it also makes sense from an environmental perspective. Think of all those trucks and the emissions, and wear on our road infrastructure.” Additionally, one must consider the negative impact of road congestion and border delays that truck traffic brings.

A recent Transport Canada report estimates that shortsea shipping has removed 60,000 trucks from roads in Ontario and Quebec alone. And while rail can often be an efficient means of transporting large amounts of cargo, it can cost several times as much, per ton, as shipping by sea.

Numerous marine solutions

McKeil owns and operates a diverse and versatile fleet in excess of 20 tugs and 30 barges, including large ocean-going barges that can carry up to 20,000 tons, and is one of eight similar companies in Eastern Canada offering this type of marine transport.

But suggesting that McKeil is just a shipping company would be to minimize their ability to provide a wide-range of innovative marine solutions for customers throughout the Great Lakes, St. Lawrence Seaway, East Coast and the Canadian Arctic.

“Marine transportation has a lot of benefits, but the biggest challenge we face is the lack of dredging in many of our ports, especially in the U.S., where a lot of money isn’t being spent on maintaining the infrastructure,” says McKeil. “In contrast, the St. Lawrence Seaway is aging, but they tend to keep it well maintained.”

McKeil is bullish about the company’s future. It’s building 10 new ships, and while the mining side of the business is expected to be soft for the next couple of years, as some projects are on hold, consistent growth is expected long term. And as higher oil prices put the squeeze on other forms of transportation, McKeil says that it makes marine transportation even more competitive.