Port of Vancouver faulted in grain-inspection dispute

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian Port & Economy Reporter

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In the dispute over the lack of inspections at United Grain Corp., the Port of Vancouver is now coming under sharp criticism from the federal government.

In a letter sent Thursday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the agency said its safety experts have concluded “that the Port of Vancouver has not been enforcing its rules of conduct” to enable state or federal grain inspectors to safely move through a picketed gate to reach United Grain’s export facility.

The letter, written by Lawrence Mitchell, an administrator for the U.S. Agriculture department based in Washington ,D.C., was in response to requests by United Grain to direct federal personnel to take over inspections in the absence of state officials. The U.S. Agriculture department has refused to do so but says it’s reviewing the matter.

Citing threats from union pickets, Washington state Department of Agriculture inspectors have refused to enter a gate at the port since July 7. Their refusal has all but shut down the West Coast’s largest grain elevator.

A similar labor conflict at the Columbia Grain facility at the Port of Portland has been managed better than at the Port of Vancouver, Mitchell wrote, “and does not present the same safety concerns for the (federal) inspectors” who examine grain in Portland.

In a statement emailed to The Columbian on Thursday, Port of Vancouver spokeswoman Theresa Wagner said, in part, that the port has “worked diligently since the dispute began to provide necessary professional security services to keep people entering and exiting (the port) safe. This included close collaboration between the port’s team and both the Vancouver Police Department and the Washington State Patrol.”

Mitchell’s letter comes amid a 17-month-long labor conflict between United Grain and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. It adds yet another twist to a controversy that intensfied in February 2013, when United Grain locked out Longshore workers. The lockout triggered pickets outside the company’s facility at the port and near the company’s headquarters in downtown Vancouver.

The lockout is part of a larger battle between Northwest grain terminal operators and the Longshore union. Terminal operators say they want a new contract that mirrors employer-friendly terms the Longshore union signed in February 2012 with Export Grain Terminal in Longview. The union says the demands by United Grain, Columbia Grain in Portland (where dockworkers were locked out in May 2013) and Louis Dreyfus Commodities — which operates facilities in Portland and Seattle — aim to hurt workers.

‘Efficient and safe’

In his letter, Mitchell said U.S. Agriculture safety experts have concluded that there are measures in place at the Port of Vancouver to minimize risks to state and federal grain inspectors but “only if (the port) enforces the rules of conduct it has implemented,” which has not been happening.

To show a contrasting situation, Mitchell highlights Columbia Grain at the Port of Portland, where another safety assessment found that several factors, including state and local laws and management of a “security-staffed entry control point,” have provided “an efficient and safe means of entry and exit” at the site.

Locked out workers at Columbia Grain are “restricted to a ‘box’ area that allows them to show their presence but does not allow them to hinder, obstruct or otherwise delay any vehicle” trying to enter or leave the entry control point, according to Mitchell.

Pat McCormick, spokesman for the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association — whose membership includes United Grain — said Thursday that United Grain has, from the beginning of the conflict, repeatedly asked the Port of Vancouver “for enhanced enforcement” at the picketed gate on the port’s east side.

He said Columbia Grain in Portland experienced traffic disruptions from pickets for several months, until the Portland Police Bureau, the city’s Bureau of Transportation, the Port of Portland and Columbia Grain worked together to improve the situation.

McCormick said the Port of Vancouver could deploy security measures similar to those in place at Columbia Grain. “The port can do that, it’s within the port’s powers,” he said. “That would make sense to us.”

‘Security efforts’

In her emailed statement to The Columbian, Wagner, the Port of Vancouver spokeswoman, said the port believes its “security efforts have been successful in ensuring the safety of those who enter and exit (United Grain’s) leasehold.”

She also said: “We will continue these security efforts because, again, our top priority is keeping everyone who needs to access the port safe, and we remain committed to working with our partners as they endeavor to resolve this dispute.”

At the same time Mitchell criticized the Port of Vancouver in his letter, he also disagreed with assertions by United Grain that the picketed gate is, for the most part, safe enough to enter and leave.

To back its assertions, the company cites several investigative reports, including one completed late last year by the Washington State Patrol.

In his letter, Mitchell wrote that the state Agriculture department has documented “numerous incidents,” including as recently as late June and early July, “when its personnel raised safety concerns.” Those include a state Agriculture employee who “was concerned for his safety and cited the Vancouver Police Department and (Washington state Patrol’s) difficulty in controlling the picketers,” and a state Agriculture employee who “reported that picketers threw gravel at his car.”

McCormick, of the Grain Handlers Association, provided a letter to The Columbian on Tuesday that disputes the U.S. Agriculture department’s arguments that the Port of Vancouver gate is unsafe for grain inspectors to use. The letter, written by top members of U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Agriculture, urges the federal agriculture department to provide grain inspection services at the port.

McCormick said many other neutral parties, including government agencies, have safely used the Port of Vancouver gate to reach United Grain. “It’s hard for us, observing the activity for the last eight months, to concur with (the) assessment that there’s been any escalating activity of threats or violence,” he said.

Although shippers may use other grain terminals in the region, farmers and export groups have raised concerns about their ability to ship products overseas, given the situation at the Port of Vancouver.

Said McCormick: “We just want to get grain moving again.”