Maritime unions cry foul on grain companies

They say unqualified, nonunion tugboat creates dangers

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

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Two maritime unions say United Grain Corp. at the Port of Vancouver and Columbia Grain in Portland are employing an unqualified, nonunion tug and towboat operator to move grain amid the companies' ongoing lockout of union dockworkers, exposing people and the environment to danger on the region's waterways.

The International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots and the Inlandboatmen's Union are honoring picket lines maintained by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. That means the maritime unions aren't moving grain for the companies. In their absence, United Grain and Columbia Grain "have called in a fly-by-night tug and towboat operator using questionable equipment and unqualified tugboat personnel with no prior experience on the Columbia and Willamette rivers," according to a news release from the maritime unions.

The two maritime unions also say the U.S. Coast Guard is "turning a blind eye" to the situation.

Pat McCormick, spokesman for the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association — which includes United Grain and Columbia Grain — said it was more appropriate for the Coast Guard, which enforces maritime law, to respond.

Lt. Regina Caffrey, a public affairs officer for the Coast Guard, said her agency has examined concerns raised by the two maritime unions and has mostly found they don't merit an ongoing investigation or enforcement action.

The concerns raised by the two maritime unions are the latest flare-ups in the yearlong contract dispute between Northwest grain handlers and longshore workers. United Grain and Columbia Grain locked out union dockworkers in February and May, respectively.

Don Marcus, international president of Masters, Mates & Pilots, said the presence of the unqualified boat operator jeopardizes the safety of commerce on the region's waterways and invites an environmental disaster.

"It's essential that the (grain handlers) and the ILWU get back together and settle this dispute," Marcus said in a phone interview with The Columbian. "It's very negative for everyone on the river."

The Coast Guard will meet with the two maritime unions early next week to discuss their concerns, Caffrey said.

'Taking sides'

Marcus said the two maritime unions believe the alleged unqualified boat operator is Kadoke Marine. The company is listed in Oregon state government records as Kadoke Marine Management, a limited liability company registered on July 3.

Andrew Kerr, an attorney with Brownstein Rask law firm in Portland, is listed as the registered agent for Kadoke. Kerr said Thursday he's no longer representing Kadoke and had no comment on the matter. He referred inquiries to Bill Hutchison, an attorney with the Lane Powell law firm in Portland, who declined to comment.

Marcus said a boat operated by the company has been involved in several questionable incidents. They include an Aug. 20 incident in which the boat collided with "a stationary object," Marcus said, near United Grain's facility, causing damage.

In another incident, on Sept. 10, Marcus said the same boat failed to maneuver properly to allow company personnel to safely access the boat at Columbia Grain's facility in North Portland.

Marcus said the two maritime unions also believe the boat is supervised by an unfit captain.

In their news release, Alan Cote, national president of the Inlandboatmen's Union, said "accidents are occuring with regularity," and that the Coast Guard is "taking sides" with United Grain and Columbia Grain by ignoring the incidents.

In a phone interview with The Columbian, Caffrey, the Coast Guard spokeswoman, said the agency follows federal law in carrying out investigations and enforcement actions. "We do our regulatory enforcement no matter who's involved," she said.

Caffrey confirmed Thursday that Kadoke Marine is the company involved in the August incident near United Grain and in the matter regarding its boat crew's credentials. Caffrey said there was an incident in August in which a tugboat, maneuvering near United Grain's facility, ran into a mooring fender.

Under federal law, the criteria for launching a full investigation -- and possibly taking enforcement action -- include property damage in excess of $25,000, Caffrey said. The Coast Guard conducted a preliminary investigation of the incident, she said, and found that only minimal damage occurred. As a result, the incident did not warrant further action.

Caffrey said she's aware of concerns about poor ship maneuvering but doesn't have anything specific regarding the Sept. 10 incident alleged by the two maritime unions.

As to the allegation that the boat's captain is unfit, Caffrey said the matter remains under investigation. She said the Coast Guard initially reviewed the credentials of the boat's crew and found that all but one of nine personnel possessed the proper endorsements.

On Sept. 24, Caffrey said, the Coast Guard received updated paperwork for all of the boat's crew members and that all of it checked out. Nevertheless, an investigation into the initial finding that "something did not match up" with one member of the boat's crew remains open, Caffrey said.

Caffrey noted the Coast Guard has, since the beginning of 2013, so far taken a total of 62 enforcement actions -- 59 civil penalty citations and three suspensions or revocations of merchant mariner credentials.

Aaron Corvin: http://twitter.com/col_econ; http://on.fb.me/AaronCorvin 360-735-4518;; aaron.corvin@columbian.com