EACH week, the Weathertex manufacturing plant at Heatherbrae sends up to four double-size containers full of its hardwood-based wall-cladding products by semi-trailer to Port Botany.
Executive chairman Paul Michael says the company, which exports about 20 per cent of its product, would love to ship its containers out of Newcastle, and is supporting the Port of Newcastle’s push to have a container terminal established on the former steelworks site.
About 10 kilometres away, the giant Tomago Aluminium smelter brings in about 1.1 million tonnes of its main raw material, alumina, through the Port of Newcastle each year.
About 60,000 tonnes of aluminium – or about 10 per cent of its output – heads the other way out past Nobbys as bulk cargo.
But most of Tomago’s output, or about 500,000 tonnes a year, is exported through Botany, leaving the smelter on freight trains at the rate of about 400 containers a week.
Tomago chief executive Matt Howell says the company is “doing the sums” on what a Newcastle container terminal would do for the smelter, saying “we can see the sense and logic” in the proposal.
“The Hunter has the industrial presence to support a container terminal,” Mr Howell said. “Obviously there are no concrete plans as yet but we like the idea.”
With a Newcastle container terminal back on the political agenda, Weathertex and Tomago are just two of the Hunter businesses who see benefits in shipping containers out of Newcastle.
Mr Michael says as well as a saving in trucking costs, growing congestion made planning truck movements in and out of Sydney was becoming increasingly difficult.
The Port of Newcastle has highlighted transport costs and congestion in recent documents, including a submission to the NSW government’s draft freight and ports plan, which closed for consultation in March.
The NSW opposition is supporting the Newcastle push, with Labor leader Luke Foley saying the secret container fee imposed on the port during its privatisation was stopping it from developing a container terminal.
The fee would add about $150 a container to Newcastle’s costs.
It meant “a wide swathe of the state from the Hunter and the Hawkesbury to New England and the mid-North Coast will be paying more to import and export their goods”.
“The Berejiklian government’s decision to prevent Newcastle from competing with Port Botany means imposing high transport costs on businesses for 98 years,” Mr Foley said, referring to the length of the Newcastle lease.
Dubbing the fee a “port rort”, Newcastle MP Tim Crakanthorp said Hunter businesses had put the cost of road-hauling a container to Sydney at about $1500.
“This includes fuel, maintenance, vehicle booking fees, surcharges and labour,” Mr Crakanthorp said. “The tolls alone for travelling north from Botany are $68.19 one way. These costs would be much reduced, or avoided altogether, if a container terminal was developed in Newcastle.”
After a tour of the Weathertex plant, Port Stephens MP Kate Washington said it was a “manufacturing marvel” that would benefit from a Newcastle container terminal.
Mr Michael said that after 20 years under the existing ownership, the plant had lifted output from 1.2 million square metres a year to two million square metres.
It had been running around the clock on two 12-hour shifts a day and was about to add a third shift, meaning another 15 or so jobs on top of a workforce of about 100.
The plant had capacity to run four shifts a day.
Mr Michael said the plant, built in 1939, was the only one of its kind left operating in the world.
It still made small amounts of its original product, masonite interior panelling, but its main output was Weathertex, made for external use in various styles.”
Masonite and Weathertex are both made of hardwood pulp, formed into shape using high pressure steam and hydraulic presses.
Masonite is named after William H. Mason, who patented what became known as the Mason process in America in 1924.