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Feds decline to take over grain inspections at Vancouver port

United Grain has halted operations amid labor dispute

By , Columbian Port & Economy Reporter
4 Photos
The International Longshore and Warehouse Union said Monday, Sept.
The International Longshore and Warehouse Union said Monday, Sept. 8 that the recently approved agreement with the Grain Handlers Association is "significantly different from, and superior to" the more employer-friendly accord it signed in early 2012 with Export Grain Terminal in Longview. Photo Gallery

Add the federal government to the growing list of agencies that are staying out, for now, of a thorny situation in which a lack of inspections has forced United Grain Corp. — operator of the largest grain elevator on the West Coast — to largely halt its export operations.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture said this week it won’t direct federal personnel to take over grain inspections at the Port of Vancouver because it believes the safety of its employees can’t be ensured. The department “is continuing to review the matter,” wrote Edward Avalos, the department’s under secretary for marketing and regulatory programs.

Avalos’ letter comes amid a 17-month-long labor conflict between United Grain and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. A casualty of the dispute are the grain inspections that had been provided by the state Department of Agriculture. State grain inspectors, citing threats from union pickets, have refused to enter a gate at the port since July 7.

Their refusal led United Grain to all but shutter its operations, prompting farmers and export groups to openly worry about being able to efficiently movie their agriculture products to overseas markets.

Avalos’ letter, sent Monday in response to concerns raised by the American Farm Bureau Federation — which had urged the federal government to take over grain inspections — drew a response from United Grain. In a letter the company sent Tuesday to the Farm Bureau Federation, John Todd, vice president and operations manager for United Grain, wrote that Avalos’ “excuses for denying inspection services” are as “credible as ‘the dog ate my homework.’ “

Todd argues there’s no evidence of any incidents involving state Agriculture inspectors “that justifies termination of inspection services.” He cites several investigative reports, including one completed late last year by the Washington State Patrol, to buttress the company’s assertions that it’s safe to pass through the picketed gate.

That State Patrol investigation also reveals details about how various parties have handled the grain-inspection issue, including the short-lived use of a helicopter to ferry state grain inspectors to United Grain’s site. United Grain locked out Longshore workers in February 2013, prompting the union to maintain pickets outside the company’s facility and near the company’s headquarters in downtown Vancouver.

Pat McCormick, spokesman for the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association — whose membership includes United Grain — said Tuesday that the company has managed, through special waivers, to load only limited amounts of grain onto ships. Otherwise, the lack of grain inspections poses “a significant impediment,” he said, to running the company’s facility. “It’s at the most critical time of the year because we’re going into the harvest season where the amount of grain that we are going to be shipping over the next couple months is at its peak,” McCormick said.

‘Uniformed escorts’

The State Patrol report, completed in November 2013, shows that various parties, including United Grain, the port and Vancouver Police, have sought solutions to the safety concerns raised by state grain inspectors.

United Grain, meanwhile, hired Gettier and Associates to provide security escorts for non-union employees entering and leaving the company’s facility, according to the report. From Sept. 5 to Oct. 7 last year, Vancouver Police “conducted uniformed escorts” for state grain inspectors. Those escorts were ended “at the direction of the Vancouver City Council,” according to the State Patrol report. The details surrounding the city’s decision aren’t entirely clear. City Manager Eric Holmes did not immediately respond Tuesday to a request for comment.

The State Patrol report goes on to say that United Grain “contracted a helicopter service to transport (state grain inspectors) from an off-site location and return at the conclusion of the shift.” But “after nearly 14 days of providing the service,” the report says, “(state grain inspectors) discontinued using this service, citing safety concerns.”

McCormick, the spokesman for the Grain Handlers Association, said Tuesday that concerns raised by the Washington Federation of State Employees about the use of the helicopter — not safety issues — ultimately led the parties to stop using that mode of transportation.

The Federation of State Employees had said its contract with state government didn’t allow state employees to be transported by helicopter, according to McCormick.

Hector Castro, a spokesman for the state Agriculture department, on Tuesday confirmed McCormick’s account of what happened with the helicopter.

In its conclusion, the State Patrol’s November 2013 report noted that “multiple companies,” including FedEx, UPS, suppliers, and other customers of (United Grain) and the Port of Vancouver continue” to use the picketed gate “with no reported serious or violent crimes.”

The report also noted that “transportation of non-union (United Grain) employees (has) proven both safe and effective for entering and exiting the picket lines from both a security and cost-effectiveness standpoint.”

And while “no direct threats or crimes have been documented targeting (state grain inspectors) specifically,” according to the report, “there are a number of documented instances investigated by (Vancouver Police) typical for this type of labor dispute that have caused (state grain inspectors) concern.”

The report recommended that state grain inspectors use the same “mode of travel offered and being used by non-union (United Grain) employees provided by Gettier and Associates.”

In his letter critical of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s decision not to provide federal grain inspections, Todd, the United Grain vice president, wrote that the company has “offered a variety of options to provide inspectors secure entry and exit from the facility.” He cited a recent assessment by federal safety experts that showed “access through the gate is safe.”

Todd wrote that “even more troubling” is the “collusion” of the federal government’s grain-inspection division “with Washington state officials using the pretext of safety concerns as justification for a political decision to deny essential inspection services.”

In an email Tuesday, state Agriculture department spokesman Castro said “our actions have been strictly due to the safety concerns of our staff.”

Jennifer Sargent, spokeswoman for the Longshore union, has told The Columbian that state grain inspectors don’t feel safe at the picket lines because of conditions created by United Grain, and that “they are union members themselves who generally do not want to cross picket lines.”

In a phone interview Tuesday, Leal Sundet, coast committeeman for the Longshore union, said United Grain’s use of private security has significantly contributed to an atmosphere in which grain inspectors are wary of passing through the gate. “Harm’s way isn’t a one-way street,” he said.

Waivers used

Other attempts have been made to resolve the grain-inspection issue.

Last fall, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee directed the State Patrol to provide state grain inspectors with security escorts to United Grain’s facility.

It was offered as a temporary measure aimed at giving the company and the Longshore union time to resolve their contract dispute. In late June, Inslee put a halt to the State Patrol escorts, saying they hadn’t produced the intended results.

After the governor’s decision, the state Agriculture department, citing safety concerns, discontinued grain inspections on July 7. Subsequently, United Grain’s operations came to a halt. 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.

McCormick said Tuesday that United Grain was able to load nearly 3 million bushels of grain onto two ships in July using expensive and difficult-to-obtain waivers approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and customers. He said the company has more than 17 million bushels of grain slated to be exported this month. United Grain will be able to export a small portion of that using waivers, McCormick said.

Aaron Corvin:;; 360-735-4518;

Columbian Port & Economy Reporter