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Florence is 'going to back up an already backed-up system': source

Houston — With Hurricane Florence's landfall expected to take place in the Carolinas later this week, coal traders began planning for potential impact on global markets, sources said Wednesday.

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Impact could range from small with about a week expected for the port to reopen to much larger if any rail, terminal or production capacity is damaged by the storm, a UK-based trader said.

The storm could increase pricing for an already tight Atlantic Basin market, the trader said.

"We could see a price spike - right now, it's up in the air," the trader said.

The trader expected to start seeing orders cancelled next week, depending on the extent of the damage.

Demand for high-sulphur US coal has been strong, the trader said, noting capacity issues off USEC ports have already limited deals.

"We were bullish before the hurricane - even by $4-$5," he said.

REPRIEVE POSSIBLE

Some reprieve from the storm looked possible Wednesday as the Port of Virginia noted the forecast had improved significantly for southeastern Virginia and offered "manageable conditions for cargo operations."

The US Coast Guard had closed the major US coal artery out of Hampton Roads Tuesday after all vessels had cleared out of the region Monday. A coal export source said workers at Norfolk-based Lamberts Point, the largest of the three terminals in Hampton Roads, were told to stay home as of 3 pm EDT Tuesday.

The port issued a hard stop for all terminal activities on Tuesday beginning at 11:59 pm EDT. All vessels are to depart Port of Virginia berths, according to a statement from the port.

Norfolk, Virginia, is the largest coal-exporting census district in the US.

The source said Hampton Roads has been backed up for quite some time as a result of the uptick in coal exports and rail issues, but this will worsen the backlog.

"Vessels in the queue had moved into the high teens earlier this year but they had booked it down to the low teens, but this will back them up again," he said. "It's going to back up an already backed-up system."

"The best-case scenario is they will start loading vessels again Sunday, but the worst case would be some time next week," he added.

Florence, a Category 4 hurricane, is expected to make landfall Friday between South Carolina and North Carolina, according to the US National Hurricane Center.

All coal vessels waiting for berths at Cape Charles anchorage were ordered to leave for sea Monday and all inbound vessels were barred from entry until the USCG allows them to return, according to a source with knowledge of port operations at Hampton Roads.

Roughly 18 vessels were ordered by the USCG to leave port. In addition, the US Navy has sent all of its vessels out to sea as well and all fighter jets were flying to inland bases Tuesday, said the source.

The source said that vessels will drift offshore until the port is reopened, and that the USCG has advised that the port shutdown could last seven to 10 days.

EXPORTS AT FOUR-YEAR HIGH

According to Dominion Terminal data, the last vessel was loaded at 5 am on Monday with 90,159 st on board. The next vessels are not scheduled to load until Friday, but 18 ships are expected to load 1.15 million st, or an average 64,077 st, in the next two weeks.

Last week, data from the Virginia Maritime Association showed that coal exports out of DTA were at a four-year high of 1.6 million st in August, up 24% month on month and 41% year on year.

Steve Doyle, president of BtuBaron, said in a social media post that Hurricane Florence is likely to disrupt exports from Norfolk and Newport News for a week or more.

Another source said the additional hurricanes -- Isaac, Helene and Olivia -- are really going to put a dent in the US coal supply for both metallurgical and thermal coal in the Atlantic. "Not so much in September," he said, "but in October and especially November."

The first source was not sure what to expect from the storm but said "we're in sort of a wait-and-see holdout right now."

He said he saw one model that predicted anywhere from 2 to 3 feet of rain.

"If we get all that rain, it's going to be a disaster: with transportation, mining, everything, the whole supply chain. We've had more rain year to date than the yearly average, so it's already wet around here," he said. "The railroad mines that are in the river valleys -- that are up against the mountains and the rivers -- that water has nowhere to go except down to the river valley. That's going to be a big mess that I don't know what is going to happen."

According to the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, the last major hurricane to hit Virginia was Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

BALTIMORE

As of 11 am EDT Tuesday morning, the USCG has not instructed any vessels to leave the Port of Baltimore, which remains at Whiskey, or gale force winds predicted within 72 hours.

RAILROADS

CSX said it is monitoring the path of the hurricane and "has made extensive preparations for the potential impact of the storm."

"The extent of the effect this system will have on CSX operations is not yet known; however, several regional operating departments are making tactical plan changes and curtailments to proactively minimize the impact to rail traffic," said the railroad in a statement Tuesday.

Norfolk Southern did not respond to requests for comment.

-- Tyler Godwin, tyler.godwin@spglobal.com; Andrew Moore, andrew.moore@spglobal.com; Jeffrey McDonald, jeffrey.mcdonald@spglobal.com

-- Edited by Jeffrey McDonald, newsdesk@spglobal.com