Friday, August 15, 2014

Union, Grain Handler Companies Reach Deal

By Mark Edward Nero

The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service says that a tentative agreement has been reached in the contentious two-year labor dispute at Northwest grain terminals. The agreement between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and Pacific Northwest Grain Companies was reached just before midnight on August 11.

“After engaging in difficult and contentious bargaining for over two years, including multiple marathon mediation sessions... the announcement of the tentative agreement, subject to the ratification of ILWU membership, represents an amazing achievement of a potentially positive outcome,” FMCS Acting Director Scot Beckenbaugh said.

The Washington, DC-based Mediation and Conciliation Service said that in accordance with the agency’s longstanding policy on confidentiality, it won’t comment on or disclose the terms of the agreement.

The contract dispute initially involved six terminals operating under a single collective bargaining agreement with the ILWU: Portland-based Columbia Grain; Vancouver, Washington-based United Grain; TEMCO, which operates grain elevators in Portland and Tacoma, Washington; and Louis Dreyfus Commodities, which has grain elevators in Seattle and Portland.

However TEMCO, which is owned jointly by agricultural cooperative CHS Inc. and agricultural purchase and distribution company Cargill, broke from the alliance in December 2012 and separately negotiated a contract with the union in the spring of 2013.

In May 2013, Columbia Grain, which is owned by Japanese trader Marubeni Corp, locked out its unionized workforce because, it claims, members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union were purposefully engaging in a work slowdown at its Port of Portland terminal.

Similarly, United Grain indefinitely locked out its union dockworkers in February 2013, after accusing a union official who worked there of sabotaging equipment in retaliation for contentious ongoing contract negotiations.

The grain companies began negotiations with the union in September 2012, with the ILWU saying at the time that it wouldn’t budge on some concessions the owners have asked for, such as 12-hour work shifts, an ability to bypass the union hiring hall and being given greater control over the ability to fire dockworkers.

Vancouver Grain Inspectors Back on the Job

By Mark Edward Nero

A tentative contract agreement between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and Pacific Northwest Grain Companies resulted in federal grain inspectors at the Port of Vancouver USA returning to the job Aug. 12 after staying away for weeks due to safety concerns.

The agreement was reached just before midnight on Aug. 11 and the inspectors returned to the job hours later. They had stayed away since July, which is when the government stopped supplying grain inspectors for United Grain Corp., following Washington Gov. Jay Inslee halting the practice of supplying troopers to escort inspectors in and out of the terminal past picketing international Longshore & Warehouse Union members.

The escorts began in response to an incident the prior month when one inspector filed a police report saying that they were verbally harassed while crossing the picket line.

In response to the pulling of the escort, inspectors had refused to enter the terminal, citing safety concerns, which led to United Grain halting grain shipments, which effectively shuttered terminal operations. But with the inspectors’ return, the United Grain terminal has resumed operations, just ahead of an expected ramp up of operations during the start of grain-shipping season in September.

The ILWU’s rank and file still needs to vote on the tentative agreement with the grain companies for it to become official, which is expected to happen in the coming days.

Port Angeles Delays $3 Million Terminal Project

By Mark Edward Nero

The Port of Port Angeles has decided to delay a multi-year, $3 million project to replace piles at Terminal 1, as well as a few other capital projects, the port’s engineering director said Aug. 12.

A delay in receiving permits has pushed the schedule for the Terminal 1 redevelopment from October 2014 to July 2015, Engineering Director Chris Hartman told the Port of Port Angeles Commission during its meeting this week.

Under the project, the port plans to replace toxic, creosote-covered timber pilings at the terminal with stronger, more environmentally safe steel piles. Hartman said the port already has spent $73,826 of an allotted $180,000 for redevelopment-permit costs and project design.

In all, five projects were delayed for various reasons. In addition to the Terminal 1 pilings project, a $250,000 cleanup of the port’s Marine Trades Area was delayed due to a draft cleanup action plan still being under review with the Dept. of Ecology. Also, a $7,000 gangway transition tower purchase was deferred because the port was able to borrow a gangway system for use during this year’s cruise vessel season.

The delays and deferrals of various projects have reduced the port’s anticipated capital expenditures in its 2014 budget by about $1.3 million, according to Hartman.

Port of Tacoma CEO Gets 4 Percent Raise

By Mark Edward Nero

Port of Tacoma CEO John Wolfe was granted a four percent pay increase by the port’s governing board on Aug. 7, raising his annual pay to $257,000.

Wolfe, a Puyallup, Wash. native, was named the port’s chief executive officer in June 2010 after a five-year stint as deputy executive director.

During his tenure so far, he has overseen substantial growth in containerized cargo volumes, mostly attributed to a move of the so-called Grand Alliance of shippers – NYK, OOCL and Hapag-Lloyd – which moved to Tacoma’s Washington United Terminals in 2012 from the rival Port of Seattle.

Before joining the Port of Tacoma, he spent two years as the executive director of the Port of Olympia, and before that was Olympia’s director of operations and marine terminal general manager.

He also spent 10 years with Maersk Sealand/APM Terminals in Tacoma, with his last role being the terminal’s operations manager.

With the raise, Wolfe will see his pay increase by about $10,000 a year. However, he’ll still earn less than the CEO of the neighboring Port of Seattle, Tay Yoshitani, who earns about $367,000 annually. Yoshitani, who is expected to retire later this year, has substantially more responsibilities than Wolfe, including oversight of the Sea-Tac Airport.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Stockton Port Suspending Marine Highway Ops

By Mark Edward Nero

The Port of Stockton says it’s transitioning its M-580 Marine Highway demonstration project from a weekly offering to an “as-needed” service effective Sept. 1, due to difficulties in making the project work financially.

During the past several months, port officials met with “numerous state and federal agencies” to identify possible financial partners to assist in keeping the current level of service but thus far, no state or federal agency has made a financial commitment toward the weekly operation of the project.

“Challenges remain as the Port of Stockton is the only operating underwriter of this regional project,” Port Director Richard Aschieris said. “During this initial period, we learned that the time it takes to build sustainable volumes was longer than anticipated.”

For the past 14 months, the M-580 has been operating as an alternative to trucking containers to and from the Central Valley and the Bay Area. The M-580 roughly parallels the I-580 corridor between California’s Central Valley and Oakland, one of the most heavily congested highways in the country. It is estimated that about 1,600 containers move per day between the Stockton and Oakland ports along I-580.

When the Marine Highway launched in June 2013, port officials anticipated annual revenues of $15 million, based on handling nearly 900 containers per week, but the financial returns have not lived up to projections.

The project’s total cost was about $30 million, with the majority of funding coming from a federal grant, the port itself spending $8 million, and another $5 million coming from local and regional sources, such as air pollution management agencies.

One of the main priorities of the project was eliminating truck traffic and air pollution, and Aschieris touted the environmental benefits it achieved.

“This project has demonstrated tremendous air quality benefits, reducing air emissions by 80 percent and truck trips by nearly 25,000, making highways safer,” Aschieris said. “The M-580 has significantly reduced associated maintenance costs as well.”

Port Commission Chair Victor Mow also commented on the value of the M-580.

“This project needs to be a part of the goods movement system in California,” Mow said. “With the congestion we experience on I-580, as well as the air quality and safety benefits of the M-580, we look forward to the day we can bring the weekly service back to benefit our communities.”

According to the Port of Stockton, the project has created 45 new jobs in the maritime terminal, and has led to 116 voyages between the ports of Oakland and Stockton so far. A total of 24,629 truck trips have been eliminated and 7,259 containers transported over the past 14 months, for a total emission reduction of 5,977 tons.

French Distraction

By Chris Philips

Last month a civilian airliner was shot down over Eastern Ukraine, killing almost 300 civilian passengers and crew. In the wake of the tragedy, the Obama administration and Congress have loudly and repeatedly condemned the action but so far have provided no other concrete response, while declining requests from the Ukraine government for military aid. Meanwhile, US commentators from both sides of the political aisle have taken to condemning the sale by France of a new Mistral-class warship to Russia.

The 199-meter by 32-meter amphibious assault ship Vladivostok is part of a two-ship, 1.2 billion (US$1.6 billion) contract between France and Russia signed in 2011. 

Each ice-strengthened ship will carry a group of 16 Russian Ka-32 Alligator attack helicopters and the cargo deck can accommodate more than 40 tanks or 70 motor vehicles. The vessels will be positioned at a new facility being prepared in the Russian Far East city of Vladivostok.

The first ship is due this fall, with the second to be delivered by the end of 2015. France has credited the order for employing more than 1,000 workers at the STX France shipyard in St. Nazaire. Over objections from the US, French President Fran├žois Hollande said France plans to go forward with the sale of the warship while offering the possibility he might cancel the delivery of the second vessel.

Delivery of the initial ship is moving ahead, Mr. Hollande said, because “the Russians have already paid” for the vessel, and France doesn’t want to reimburse the Kremlin.

In an ironic (or perhaps prophetic) twist, the second ship is to be named Sevastopol, after the Crimean headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, which was Ukrainian territory when the contract was signed but has since been invaded and annexed by Russia earlier this year.

While the two French Mistral-class ships will give Russia advanced capabilities and greater sea-power in the future, the recent acquisition of the Crimean shipyards has effectively removed any barrier to Russia’s building of its own warships in the future, as described by our Russian correspondent Eugene Gerden in the June, 2014 issue of Pacific Maritime Magazine. Moscow intends to spend up to $6.82 billion in Crimea this year to support the Crimean economy.

After Russia took Crimea, President Obama expressed concern about the French warship contract, saying that it “would have been preferable to press the pause button” on the deal. Late last month, US State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said “We don’t think anyone should be providing arms to Russia.”

And yet, US trade with Russia continues unabated. The latest US government figures available show that exports to Russia from the US through May of this year totaled $5.1 billion, with $1.4 billion just in aerospace exports alone. Another $95 million was earned in information and communications technology, $2 million in advanced weapons systems and $2 million in nuclear technology.

Meanwhile, the US sanctions imposed on Russia after the Crimean takeover seem to have had little effect, and the US continues to import more than 10.4 million barrels of oil from Russia each month.

In light of the billions in exports flowing from the US to Russia every month, a tempest over France’s existing, $800 million contract seems like nothing more than a distraction from the real problems facing the US, including the buildup of ice-strengthened military power in the Russian Far East.

Crowley Tug Crew Extinguishes Shoreside Blaze

By Mark Edward Nero

The mariners aboard the Crowley Maritime Corp. tugboat Sesok recently extinguished a dangerous blaze on the shores of Pilot Point, Alaska, a fishing village along the Yukon River.

The Sesok’s crew was conducting a routine, petroleum transfer from a fuel barge to onshore storage tanks when a pile of building materials – trusses, foam insulation boards and plywood – caught fire about 75 feet from the shore side connection hose, releasing toxic fumes and a thick plume of dark smoke into the air.

The tug’s captain, Crowley’s Matt McLain, ordered his crew to suspend operations, muster on deck and follow the company’s fire emergency action plan.

“Thankfully, we have fire drills aboard the vessel each week,” McLain said. “Even though our training is centered around vessel fires, we were able to adapt accordingly and assist the villagers.”

Some crewmembers used the tug’s fire extinguishers to fight the flames, while others led onlookers away from the toxic fumes. The crew also utilized the Sesok’s portable water pump to combat the blaze with fresh river water.

It took about two hours to fully extinguish the fire, after which the crew completed the planned fuel transfer and sailed to their next destination, as scheduled.

The Sesok isn’t the first Crowley tug to assist in a firefight; in 2006, crewmembers aboard the tug Guard helped firefighters extinguish a house fire on Washington’s Vashon Island. In that incident, because of the rural makeup of the island, the fire department was unable to position its engines as close as they would have liked and relied heavily on Crowley's assistance from the water.

USS Constellation Sets Sail on Final Voyage

By Mark Edward Nero

The Foss Maritime vessel Corbin Foss has begun towing the Kitty Hawk-class aircraft carrier USS Constellation on a 16,000 mile journey through the straits of Magellan to Brownsville, Texas, where the ship is to be scrapped.

The historic voyage, which is expected to take just under five months, began the afternoon of Aug. 8 at the Bremerton Naval Shipyard in Washington. The 141-foot Corbin Foss, which was built to tow barges to Alaska, is powered by two diesels producing 8,000 horsepower.

The USS Constellation (CV-64) was built at a cost of $264 million at the New York Navy Yard beginning in 1957, and in her many years of service, she was involved in numerous deployments and exercises; housed hundreds of crewmembers; and was proclaimed “America’s Flagship” in 1981 by then-President Ronald Reagan.

The 1,088-foot long aircraft carrier, which has a beam of 282 feet and can travel at up to 34 knots, was decommissioned in San Diego on Aug. 7, 2003 after 41 years of service, and she began her final voyage nearly 11 years later to the day.

Foss has created a blog at to track the final voyage of the USS Constellation and will post photos and updates over the approximately 140-day journey. Those who have served on “Connie” – as she is nicknamed by her crew – are encouraged to contribute their own stories or photos to the blog.

“We recognize the significance of this vessel to US Naval history, and to the men and women who served on her during her many operations,” Foss Maritime Senior Vice President Gary Faber said. “We are honored to be part of this historic voyage.”

USDA Refuses to Supply Vancouver Grain Inspectors

By Mark Edward Nero

The US Dept. of Agriculture on Aug. 7 sent a letter to a Port of Vancouver USA grain terminal operator criticizing both the tenant and port for its handling of a situation involving picketing longshore workers and alleged intimidation of federal grain inspectors.

In the letter to terminal operator United Grain Corp., Dept. of Agriculture Administrator Lawrence Mitchell states that federal grain inspectors shall be withheld from the terminal until such a time that the safety of inspectors can be guaranteed.

“I have determined that GIPSA (the Grain Inspection, Packers & Stockyards Administration) will continue to conditionally withhold inspection services at the UGC facility in Vancouver, Wash. because the current safety situation at the Port of Vancouver does not ensure that FGIS (Federal Grain Inspection Service) inspectors will have safe access to the facility,” the letter reads in part.

Mitchell does state, however, that the situation will be reviewed again if and when a safety assessment and risk mitigation plan is received.

The government stopped supplying grain inspectors for the UGC terminal in July, after Washington Gov. Jay Inslee halted the practice of supplying troopers to escort inspectors in and out of the terminal past picketing international Longshore & Warehouse Union members.

Inslee’s office has said it had been previously made clear that the escorts were only a temporary measure meant to give United Grain Corp. time to hammer out a labor contract with the ILWU.

In response to the pulling of the escort, inspectors have refused to enter the terminal, citing safety concerns, leading United Grain to halt grain shipments and effectively shutter operations at the terminal for the time being.

The labor dispute between United Grain Corp. and the ILWU has been ongoing at the port for 17 months and law enforcement escorts of the grain inspectors dates back to September 2013.

The escorts began in response to an incident the prior month when one inspector filed a police report saying that they were verbally harassed while crossing the picket line.