Of Great Import

Of Great Import

I f you’ve ever gazed over Long Island Sound, you may have seen the big ships coming in and out of New Haven. Maybe you’ve even wondered where they’re from, what they’re carrying and what life is like down on the waterfront.

You can’t miss the fuel tanks that stand like giant white checkers beside the highway, but there’s a lot more to the Port of New Haven. At the same time, there’s surprisingly little in the way of a city presence. The federal government oversees and maintains the 35-foot-deep channel in New Haven Harbor, and the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection has regulatory authority up to the “coastal jurisdiction line,” which, in New Haven, is 4.6 feet above sea level. Everything landside of that is governed primarily by local zoning laws, but the port’s seven waterfront terminals, including one on the Quinnipiac River, are all privately owned and operated.

The city of New Haven owns just a few parcels in the port area, which it leases for storage to the companies doing business there. But in 2008, the volunteer Board of Commissioners that oversees the port decided it should beef up the city’s presence. Enter Judi Sheiffele, a former board member who now serves as executive director of the New Haven Port Authority. She also serves as my tour guide on a busy Monday morning.

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The Courier at the New Haven Museum

We meet at her Orange Street office—the city has no building onsite at the port—and after giving me the big picture (literally, in the form of an aerial photo), we get in her car and go for a drive, taking Forbes Avenue across the Tomlinson Bridge and down to the water. A hulking black barge, its tugboat and their dock are encircled by a floating containment boom like a red-beaded necklace, a routine precautionary measure in case of an accidental spill. Nearby, two tall red cranes stand at attention.

As we head down Waterfront Street, a massive train engine is crossing with four cars in tow. Last year, Sheiffele tells me, more than 2,200 rail cars came out of the port. Through a chain link fence, we can see the impressive colossus of an Ecuadoran ship at anchor, most likely delivering steel.

New Haven is the largest of three deep-water ports in the state—the other two are Bridgeport and New London—and it ranks 53rd in the nation as measured by cargo tonnage. Ships arrive from Brazil and China and Italy bringing steel; from Algeria and Peru bringing salt; from both overseas and other states bringing petroleum. Cement, ash, asphalt, all of the jet fuel for Bradley International Airport and Westover Air Reserve Base, home heating oil and gasoline, coils of wire and bundles of rebar all pass through New Haven’s busy port. Some make the next leg of their journey by train, some by truck, some by barge and some by pipeline. There’s just one export these days: scrap metal. Sheiffele says before the Beijing Olympics, it was going almost exclusively to China. Since then, markets have opened up in Vietnam and Turkey.

Security since 9/11 has been tight, so we can’t enter any of the fenced-off terminal areas. But as we drive by, Sheiffele points out the different companies that own them and talks about their cargo. Much of it is in plain sight—bundles of rebar, mountains of sand and salt, a multicolored heap of scrap metal. We can’t see the oil, of course, but we do see tanker trucks filling up at a pump complex, like a gas station on steroids.

Also on the waterfront are the Water Pollution Control Authority; Public Service Enterprise Group (PSEG), an electricity producer; United Illuminating, which distributes the power; and a number of businesses that serve the port, providing security, laboratory testing, inspections, barge repairs and more. All this industry may not sit well with residents who might prefer to see more waterfront housing and recreational access for everyone, but Sheiffele sees it differently. “There are not a lot of deep-water ports,” she says, “and once you give them up, you don’t get them back.”

The New Haven Port Authority was created by the Board of Aldermen back in 2003, partly because the Q Bridge project had begun and “the city really felt that there needed to be an agency that could actually stand up in support of [its interests],” Sheiffele says. It wasn’t until 2008 that the Port Authority came up with funding for the part-time job she has now, which involves assisting the waterfront corporations with permitting and meeting state and federal regulations, fielding questions from shipping agents, serving as the city’s liaison to the US Army Corps of Engineers and educating the public. The Authority’s official mission is to promote maritime traffic, with the aim of both boosting economic growth and mitigating what Sheiffele calls “poor air quality along the 95 corridor because of the truck volume.”

We take a drive over to Long Wharf, where we can get a view of the port from across the harbor. In the distance, the Q Bridge and its smaller Route 1 companion form an impressive double span across the rough water where the Mill and Quinnipiac Rivers spill into New Haven Harbor. The city’s plan keeps commercial activities on the east side of the harbor and recreational activities on the west side, where the new Canal Dock Boathouse is under construction. While this will bring more opportunities for recreational use of the harbor and the rivers, Sheiffele hopes people will be respectful of sharing the waterways with “large vessels [that] cannot stop.”

It’s a windy day, with one golden band of sunlight far to the west making a play through the cloud-stacked sky. The water’s surface looks crumpled and threatening. I snap a few photos, and we turn back into the wind and head for Judi’s car. Downtown, life goes on as usual, with little notice of the massive web of international trade that links our little city with the rest of the world.

Port of New Haven
Along Waterfront St, New Haven (map)
www.newhavenct.gov/gov/depts/port_authority/default.htm

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg’s associate editor. She’s also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter at KathyLeonardCzepiel.com. Her favorite New Haven scene is a packed summer concert on the Green with dinner from the food trucks, and she loves that there’s always something new to discover here.

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