A catastrophic fire at a 300,000-tonne-capacity warehouse complex at Brazil’s Port of Santos will complicate shipments of sugar from the port for at least a year.

A fire ripped through a warehouse complex owned by the Copersucar co-operative in the Port of Santos on 18 October, and destroyed 180,000 tonnes of raw sugar during the 12 hours it took to get under control.

The structure of at least three of the six warehouses was badly damaged and it is expected to be at least a year before the terminal can be re-built and become operational again.

The fire started in one of the conveyor belts which carry sugar from the bays where it is unloaded from rail cars or trucks and taken to storage, or on to one of the three shiploaders at the giant terminal.

One ship being loaded when the fire broke out was towed clear, while tugs poured sea water onto the terminals, as roofs collapsed.

The expansion of Copersucar's Santos complex was completed at a cost of about $200 million dollars in June this year. The new system aimed to allow up to 70% of the 7.3mt (million tonnes) of sugar Copersucar had planned to export this year to reach the complex by train. Copersucar, which handles the sugar from 50 mills, is responsible for a third of the 20mt of sugar shipped now shipped from Santos each year.

There are several other smaller sugar terminals at Santos, owned by the Cosan company, in which Shell has a 50% share, and by Bunge, Cargill, Noble and Dreyfus. All have offered to help Copersucar ship the 4mt the company has contracted to export between now and April 2014.

Some sugar will also be diverted to the port of Paranagua, 400km to the south, which handled about 6mt of sugar last year. But all of Brazil's ports are working at capacity to allow them to load the 60mt of soya beans and meal, and the 20mt of corn Brazil now exports each year.

Partly because of the investments made by Copersucar, including the instalation of a third shiploader which took loading capacity to 5,500 tonnes per hour, vessels have had to wait less than a week to take on cargoes in recent weeks, compared with the three to four weeks common previously. However, the loading situation will now revert to what it was before.

Work on clearing away the damaged sugar and superstructure is not expected to start for up to three months, after insurance claims have been settled.

Even if the sugar can be shipped from other terminals, as Copersucar hopes, it will cost substantially more to get the sugar to ships from now on. No other terminal receives much sugar by train, so most of the sugar will have to travel to Santos along extremely congested roads for the next few months.

The damage at the terminal will result in more sugar leaving Santos in containers from now on.Almost three million tonnes of bagged sugar was loaded into containers at terminals outside the main port area in Santos in 2012, and taken to one of the numerous container terminals at the port.

Patrick Knight