A Georgia-based company has begun shipping its kaolin by tanker via the Panama Canal to the west coast of Canada.

English China Clay International has switched from rail to ocean to transport its kaolin or china clay to British Columbia.The clay is mined in the Middle Georgia Kaolin District, 120 miles south of Atlanta, and taken to Sandersville. Up until recently, the slurry has been loaded into railcars and taken across the continent by rail to Vancouver. From there, the slurry was distributed to mills in the province, and used as a coating agent in the paper-making industry.

Under the new method, the same amount of clay, approximately 135,000 metric tons per year, is arriving by ship instead.

The first tanker, the Chembulk Vancouver, arrived at a new 13 million Canadian dollar (US$9.1 million) distribution center south of Nanaimo, on Vancouver Island on Jan. 9. The second tanker, the Chembulk Westport, arrived on March 10.

ECC International's new distribution center was officially opened in March.

''This is a really big day for us, because this service center was a long time in the making,'' said Don Loop, vice president and regional business director for ECC International.

Dudley Rowe, ECC's chief operating officer, said economics was the main reason for switching the supply route from rail to ocean. He said having a storage terminal locally also meant the company could service local customers more effectively.

At the terminal, operated for ECC by Seaspan International, the clay slurry is pumped into several of the nine storage tanks. From there, the slurry is distributed as needed either by rail barge, rail or truck to nearby paper mills.

ECC International is no stranger to British Columbia. Its kaolin has been arriving in the province for at least eight years, used by manufacturers such as MacMillan Bloedel and Island Paper, based in New Westminster, near Vancouver.

MacMillan Bloedel, Canada's largest forest products company, is ECC's main client in British Columbia. Two grades of kaolin are destined for the company's paper and pulp mill in nearby Port Alberni, used for making lightweight coated paper for magazines, such as Newsweek, for example. A third grade, the lowest quality, is used as a filler product in newsprint, and will be shipped by rail barge to Powell River. The top grade, Alpha Gloss, is destined for Island Paper, to make a very high quality paper used in annual reports and coffee table books, for example.

MacMillan Bloedel's director of supply management, Duncan MacInnes, said the company has been looking for better ways to move the clay from Georgia for some time.

''We have about four railcars a day arriving here and it's a long supply chain,'' he pointed out.

He estimated the new transportation system will save approximately C$2 million (US$1.4 million) a year.

ECC International is the world's largest producer of white specialty minerals such as kaolin, calcined clay, ball clay and calcium carbonate. It is the minerals division of English China Clays, a company originally formed in Cornwall, England.