On The West Coast, Ports Brace For Steel Tariffs

Mar 14, 2018
Originally published on March 14, 2018 8:12 pm

It's a normal weekday at the Port of Vancouver. That means by noon, piles of steel slab cover the work yard at the docks on the Columbia River.

"Steel is tied to about a third of our revenue. So that's pretty substantial," says Abbi Russell, communications manager for the Port of Vancouver in Washington state, the second-largest importer of steel products on the West Coast. In 2017, the port unloaded 712,834 metric tons of steel.

The Port of Vancouver and manufacturers in the Northwest and along the West Coast are closely monitoring a 25 percent tariff President Trump recently placed on imported steel.

Some steel manufacturers around the U.S. say the Trump administration's tariffs will let them create jobs. But on the West Coast, many ports rely on steel from Pacific Rim countries that are subject to the tariffs.

The tariffs have drawn criticism from factories, economists and even Republican Rep. Jaime Hererra Beutler, who represents southwest Washington — a region where many counties flipped for Trump and voted Republican in 2016. One of those did so for the first time since Herbert Hoover was elected in 1928.

In a letter to the president, Herrera Beutler urged the administration to reconsider the tariffs. She said they will drive up costs for companies in nearby towns that make products from imported steel.

One of them is Steelscape, a steel-coating plant with facilities in Southern California and Kalama, Washington.

"None of us make our own steel so we're totally reliant on raw materials coming in," says Scott Cooley, the vice president of sales and customer service for Steelscape.

Steelscape turns those raw materials into components of buildings and large appliances.

Cooley said the tariffs could hit his company hard and may force Steelscape to look across the Rockies for domestic steel in the Midwest. But the company says transporting steel by rail costs $65 more per ton than steel arriving by ship from Asian countries.

"It's why none of the mills back East really supplied any of the mills out West," he says.

Cooley says the impacts of the tariffs will be felt far beyond his own company.
"You're talking about all the customer base that's on the West Coast that's reliant on steel produced in market," says Cooley. "If all that has to start coming from the East, it is going to cause prices to go up."

At the Port of Vancouver, longshoremen are unloading a ship from Korea that's filled with giant rectangular slabs of steel.

Forklift driver Rick Anderson says for the past three weeks, all he has hauled is steel. And while he understands the benefits to the steel industry in Rust Belt states, he worries it will translate into layoffs for workers in the West.

"We're all about putting Americans to work. We'd love to export more than we import," says Anderson. "But the problem is it's just not going to work here in the Northwest."

Anderson says that a lot of his colleagues have been on edge since the president announced the tariffs.

One, he says, even decided to put off buying a home.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Steel manufacturers around the U.S. say the Trump administration's tariffs will let them create jobs. But on the West Coast, many ports rely on steel from Pacific Rim countries that are subject to the tariffs. Oregon Public Broadcasting's Molly Solomon takes us to a northwest Republican stronghold that's bracing for an economic hit.

MOLLY SOLOMON, BYLINE: It's a normal day at the Port of Vancouver. That means by noon, piles of steel slab fill the work yard at the docks on the Columbia River. Abbi Russell is the communications manager for the Port of Vancouver in Washington state. It's the second-largest importer of steel products on the West Coast.

ABBI RUSSELL: Steel is tied to about a third of our revenue. So, of course, we're definitely watching it very closely.

SOLOMON: What she and other local manufacturers are watching is a 25 percent tariff President Donald Trump recently placed on imported steel. It's drawn criticism from factories, economists and even Republican Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler. She represents southwest Washington, a region where many counties flipped for Trump and voted Republican in 2016, some for the first time in nearly a century.

In a letter to the president, Herrera Beutler urged the administration to reconsider the tariffs. She says they will drive up costs for companies in nearby towns that make products from imported steel. One of them is Steelscape, a steel coating plant with facilities in southern California and Kalama, Wash.

SCOTT COOLEY: So these coils that are in these metal wrapping are from Australia.

SOLOMON: Scott Cooley walks through the assembly line at Steelscape's Washington plant where he's a vice president. Steelscape is one of three large facilities on the West Coast that are co-owned by a parent company in Asia.

COOLEY: None of us make our own steel. So we're totally reliant on raw materials coming in.

SOLOMON: Steelscape turns those raw materials into components of buildings and large appliances. Cooley says the tariffs could hit his company hard and may force Steelscape to look across the Rockies for domestic steel in the Midwest. But the company says transporting steel by rail costs $65 more per ton than steel arriving by ship from Asian countries.

COOLEY: It's why none of the mills back east really supplied any of the mills out west.

SOLOMON: Cooley says the impacts of the tariffs will be felt far beyond his own company.

COOLEY: You're talking about all the customer base that's on the West Coast that's reliant on steel produced in market. You know, if all that has to start coming from the East, I mean, it is going to cause prices to go up.

SOLOMON: At the Port of Vancouver, longshoremen are unloading a ship from Korea that's filled with giant rectangular slabs of steel. Forklift driver Rick Anderson says for the past three weeks, all he's hauled is steel. And while he understands the benefits to the steel industry in Rust Belt states, he worries it will translate into layoffs for workers in the west.

RICK ANDERSON: We're all about putting Americans to work. We'd love to export more than we import. The problem is it's just not going to work here in the northwest where we don't have a supply of steel.

SOLOMON: Anderson says that a lot of his colleagues have been on edge since the president announced the tariffs. One, he says, even decided to put off buying a home. For NPR News, I'm Molly Solomon in Vancouver, Wash. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.