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Tariffs continue to hold down steel imports to Tampa

Rolls of steel are offloaded from a ship at Port Tampa Bay last August.  CHRIS URSO   |   Times
Rolls of steel are offloaded from a ship at Port Tampa Bay last August. CHRIS URSO | Times
Published May 21, 2019

TAMPA — The Trump administration's tariffs on foreign-produced steel depressed shipments of steel arriving at Port Tampa Bay by 19 percent over a six-month period, though port officials say they have reason for optimism going forward.

Steel deliveries dropped from about 141,300 tons for the period from October through March of last year to about 114,600 tons for the time between last October and March. The port saw a similar but smaller dropoff for a nine-month period ending last June after tariffs drove prices for both domestic and imported steel from about 48 to 60 cents per pound.

In the spring of 2018, after President Trump tweeted that "trade wars are good, and easy to win," his administration imposed a 25 percent tariff, or import tax, on steel imported from Canada, Mexico and the European Union. That prompted those countries to retaliate with tariffs increasing the cost of certain U.S. goods.

'It's going to reverberate through the economy': Tampa Bay and Florida businesses expect tariffs to drive prices up

"The tariff situation definitely has had some impact," but port officials are encouraged by the fact that there are four ships en route to Tampa carrying 20,000 tons of steel coil and pipe expected to arrive in the next three weeks, said said Wade Elliott, the port's vice president for marketing and business development. "We do feel fairly optimistic going forward the next few months that steel will continue to recover."

Also helpful, Elliott said, were the Trump administration's announcements earlier this month that it had reached an agreement to end steel tariffs on Canada and Mexico and that it would cut in half its tariff on steel from Turkey, a major source of steel coming in from the Tampa Bay area.

Steel imports make up less than 1 percent of the port's cargo, which is dominated by liquid cargo (mostly petroleum and liquid sulphur) and dry bulk cargo like phosphate and limestone. Overall, bulk cargo shipments rose about 1 percent for the six months in question, with significant increases coming from liquid sulphur, limestone and cement. Meanwhile, the number of containers coming into the port is up 17 percent and the number of cruise ship passengers was up 50 percent for the first six months of the year, putting the port on a pace again to break the 1 million-passenger mark for the year.

Port approves lease for cement plant

Watch for more cement — in particular, an expensive variety used in swimming pools known as white cement — coming into the port in the future.

The port's board approved a 20-year lease with SESCO Cement, which has U.S. operations in Houston and Fort Lauderdale and plans to build a $19 million plant on 7 acres at Port Redwing. The plant is expected to open in early 2022 and have a staff of 10 full-time and 20 part-time employees. Rent for the site would ramp up as the plant is permitted, built and begins operations, reaching $189,000 a year in the sixth year of operations.

"We're really looking at this to be our east coast hub for our business going forward," said Alim Adatia, a Houston-based representative of the company. SESCO looked to expand in South Florida first, but decided on Tampa because it provided a better location from which to serve growth taking place as far north as Orlando. The company also wants to get involved with the community and local government, as it has done on a beautification initiative in Houston. "We want to be a known entity, and we hope to be here for a long time."

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Contact Richard Danielson at rdanielson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times

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