Facts Matter. Invest in the Truth.
Help VOSD raise $100,000 in our spring campaign.


    The San Diego Unified Port District is bananas. And cars. And fertilizer. San Diego’s port isn’t as big or bustling as the one in Los Angeles, but the import industry here has found its niche in a mishmash of things that might seem weird to group together.

    More than 1.6 million tons of fruit and metal and chemicals (and more) will be hauled into the port by the end of fiscal year 2013. With the growth of these imports comes jobs for skilled laborers, said Joel Valenzuela, the port’s maritime director.

    “We’re not just trying to make money for the port,” Valenzuela said. “We’re trying to create jobs for the region. We’re trying to help create a diverse San Diego economy.”

    The port could provide jobs for people who want a shot at decent wages and benefits, but who may not have the training to work in the booming tech sector, Valenzuela said.

    And from the looks of it, the pay is good. Union dockworkers in San Diego made an average income of more than $101,000 last year — expenses included — according to the Pacific Maritime Association, a trade group.

    But it remains to be seen whether the port’s specialized cargo can boost the economy as much as advocates, like former Mayor Bob Filner, have said it will. About 57,000 people are working around the port now, and they’re basically doing two big things: carefully removing cargo to minimize damage and adding value by repairing and customizing imports that come in.

    Help Us Raise $100k By the End of May

    Here’s what’s coming in and out of the port:


    Photo by Sam Hodgson
    Photo by Sam Hodgson
    A Dole bananas boat parked at the Tenth Avenue Marine Terminal.

    A huge portion of the port’s commerce is bananas — Dole bananas, to be specific.

    Dole brings 40-foot, refrigerated containers in on a boat and plugs them in to keep the produce from spoiling. There were 475 of those containers at the 10th Avenue terminal in San Diego when I floated by on a boat tour led by Valenzuela.

    The port receives about 50,000 of these containers a year. If you were to load all the fruit and vegetables on a scale, they would weigh in at 950 million short tons. And bananas are the biggest part of the haul, a Dole spokesman said.

    When stores need Dole products on their shelves, the company can put the containers on trucks or trains and send them up and down the West Coast.

    The company’s fruit imports from Latin America are expected to grow by 50 percent in San Diego after its new, bigger ships start making calls in 2015, a Dole spokesman said.

    Norwegian Fertilizer

    Craploads of manmade fertilizer from Norway are coming into the port to help San Diego farmers grow crops in our dry, rain-deprived county.

    The fertilizer is made by a company called Yara — which also specializes in explosives — and is brought here by a company called Grieg Star.

    This is a common relationship in the shipping industry: A private company needs to get its product to another country, so it hires another company to bring it over.

    Once it gets here, the stevedores step in. Those are the companies that hire the union guys who unload the ships.

    Ships, Trains and Automobiles

    Photo by Sam Hodgson
    Photo by Sam Hodgson
    Cars are unloaded from the Swan Ace at the National City Marine Terminal.

    The National City terminal is about a fifth of the 10th Avenue terminal’s size, but its shallow water is just the right depth for something called a ro-ro boat.

    Ro-ro is shorthand for roll-on, roll-off – an easy way to get wheeled cargo, like cars and trucks, off of boats and on to roads.

    About one out of every 10 imported vehicles in the United States comes through the National City terminal, and a company called Pasha Automotive Services helps bring them in.

    Back in the early ’90s, Pasha imported about 30,000 vehicles into San Diego a year. Now, the terminal is the biggest auto-processing operation on the West Coast, with more than 350,000 vehicles a year.

    Valenzuela sees this as one of the port’s big success stories. And he said he expects that success to keep growing.

      This article relates to: Business, News, Port, Share

      Written by Joel Hoffmann

      Joel Hoffmann is an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego, focusing on county government, the San Diego Unified School District and the Unified Port of San Diego. You can reach him directly at joel.hoffmann@voiceofsandiego.org.

      Joel Hoffmann
      Joel Hoffmann

      And here's an update on the question about how much of the port's imports are moved along to their final destinations by truck and railroad:

      According to the port, most of the stuff that comes in at the 10th Avenue terminal in San Diego goes by truck. The exceptions are soda ash and military equipment.

      At the National City terminal, the split is about 50 percent rail, 50 percent truck.

      Joel Hoffmann
      Joel Hoffmann

      Here's an update on Mark Giffin's question about whether the port's fertilizer is potentially explosive. It's not.

      The port tells me that it only handles explosive materials under "extraordinary circumstances" and only does so when it has approval from the city of San Diego's fire marshal and the U.S. Coast Guard. The port doesn't import ammonium nitrate-based fertilizer, which is the explosive kind. The chemicals in the fertilizer it does import are "non-combustible and non-flammable."

      Jim Jones
      Jim Jones subscriber

      I took a couple seconds to look at Yara's shipment records that I could find freely, I can only find 2 of 5 recent shipments, one was calcium nitrate and one was a 16-16-16 blend that while it probably contains ammonium nitrate it is not pure enough to be much of a danger.

      Also I looked at the last epa report on port of San Diego and it lists no AN being shipped through here.

      Mark Giffin
      Mark Giffin subscribermember

      Good to know Joel. Thanks for the follow up


      How about a follow up article about the possible use of railways to transport the autos east? (if SDG&E can install new transmission lines, is it feasible to add a railroad?)

      Mark Giffin
      Mark Giffin subscribermember

      Its being considered.
      Having trouble posting the link.
      David Moreno Tijuana Economic Development Council. Railroad expansion plans

      Mark Giffin
      Mark Giffin subscribermember

      Nice Piece Joel.
      couple of Questions.
      Do you know the breakdown of how much moves by rail vs trucks and any projections about how that mix may change in the future?
      How much of the goods moving through the port go into or out of Mexico?
      Does San Diego have any Safegaurds in place for the Fertilizers that fit into the explosives category?

      Joel Hoffmann
      Joel Hoffmann

      Thanks, Mark. Good questions. I'm working on answers and will get back to you.

      Jim Jones
      Jim Jones subscriber

      Ammonium nitrate is relatively safe as long as you don't carbon it up.

      Your article would be more complete it if mentioned that back then petroleum jelly or petrolium based waxes, a carbon source, was used as an anti-caking element to seal out moisture, but had the side effect of making the mixture much more reactive.

      This is no longer a practice, making the shipment of ammonium nitrate much safer.

      I think our close proximity to a major naval base (ie nuclear target) is far more dangerous to us civilians than a ship full of AN.

      Jim Jones
      Jim Jones subscriber

      Sure, and if I was a terrorist the idea of a ship full of AN that I could put in the middle of 32nd street and detonate would make me drool. Well, most terrorists probably drool as a default condition anyway, but yes, the potential is there, but to rig it you would need to to hijack the ship without anyone being the wiser, get a tanker ship as well to soak the AN, prep it properly by opening the bags and then, to really make a big boom mix it with coal dust and soak it with a hydrocarbon and set the detonators in stages to get a nice uniform detonation. It would be easier than rigging a car carrier because you already have the nitrogen side of the HE in place, but it isn't trivial and it is beyond most terrorists capabilities.
      Of course with the Clouseau's at homeland security protecting us we probably should worry.

      Anyway, are we even sure it's AN that Yara is bringing in?

      Mark Giffin
      Mark Giffin subscribermember

      True statement Jim But we have seen what a little diesel and a spark can do when added to the mix

      Randy Dotinga
      Randy Dotinga memberauthor

      Fertilizer safety is a serious (and deadly) issue…

      http://www.csmonitor.com/Books/chapter-and-verse/2013/0422/Texas-plant-explosion-A-deadly-1947-explosion-in-Texas-City-was-also-caused-by-ammonium-nitrateTexas plant explosion: A deadly 1947 explosion in Texas City was also caused by ammonium nitratehttp://www.csmonitor.com/Books/chapter-and-verse/2013/0422/Texas-plant-explosion-A-deadly-1947-explosion-in-Texas-City-was-also-caused-by-ammonium-nitrateBill Minutaglio, author of 'City on Fire,' discusses the 1947 explosion in Texas City of a ship full of ammonium nitrate that killed hundreds and left thousands wounded. By Randy Dotinga, Contributor / April 22, 2013 Just after World War II, Texas Ci...

      Jim Jones
      Jim Jones subscriber

      The port is running at about 1/8th of marine capacity, and there is no reason to have both 10th and 24th running, all of it could be handled at 10th.