Weekly international container shipping is poised to return to Portland.

The Port of Portland announced Tuesday that SM Line, a South Korea-based container carrier, will begin service at Terminal 6 in January 2020. Terminal 6 is Oregon’s only international container terminal, but its marine side has sat largely empty since major shippers pulled their operations during a bitter labor dispute several years ago.

The loss of regular, frequent container shipping was bad news for some Northwest farmers who export their products. To reach container ships, they’ve had to send their hay, grass seed, peas and lentils by truck or rail to Seattle/Tacoma first. 

Curtis Robinhold, executive director of the Port of Portland, said the SM Line will provide a more direct path to Asia.

“Essentially what they’re doing with that service is enabling Oregon farmers and manufacturers to avoid the congestion up in Seattle and to avoid the truck traffic up on I-5 to get up there,” he said. “So it’s just a more convenient route to market.”   

Unlike the biggest ports on the West Coast, the Port of Portland sits inland on the Columbia River. That limits the size and number of vessels it can receive.

In recent years, its Terminal 6 has been the site of high drama in the shipping world. Its former operator, a Philippine-owned group called ICTSI Oregon, left the port in 2017 after a tenure marked by labor strife. That labor conflict helped convince the terminal’s two major carriers to end shipping service in 2015.

Earlier this month, a jury awarded ICTSI more than $93 million in damages from the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and its Portland chapter, finding the unions had engaged in unlawful labor practices that hurt the company. A federal judge then delayed entering that judgment against the ILWU, concluding it “may result in the bankruptcy of [the] union.”

Terminal 6 may have lost its operator and its major shippers in recent years, but it didn’t go idle. Working with BNSF Railway, the port launched a truck-to-rail facility there last year. That intermodal operation allows, for example, containers of grass seed to be trucked up the Willamette Valley and loaded onto trains bound for ports in Seattle and Tacoma.

Robinhold is optimistic about the new shipping partnership with SM Line, saying the acrimony that characterized relations between ICTSI and the longshoremen is in the past. The port has hired a group called Harbor Industrial to manage the day to day operation of loading and unloading cargo at Terminal 6.

“We’ve actually seen them do this work at T6 over the last year with the BNSF shuttle,” he said. “They’ve done a really good job. The longshoremen are really leaning in, trying to make this work, so we just feel like it’s a great time for cargo service to return.”

The port said SM Line’s service will start from the port of Ningbo in China on December 22 with the first vessel likely arriving in Portland in January.