The USDA is refusing to send its own grain inspectors into a major grain terminal in Vancouver, Wash., further hindering grain movement during harvest season.
Last month, state grain inspectors from the Washington State Department of Agriculture stopped entering the United Grain facility, fearing the longshoremen who are picketing at the site.
They had previously been escorted into the facility by state troopers, but Washington Gov. Jay Inslee withdrew that protection in early July.
Grain exports must be inspected according to federal law, so the decision effectively shut down shipments from that terminal.
United Grain and multiple organizations representing agriculture then asked the USDA to send its own inspectors into the facility.
The agency has now denied that request, saying it’s “conditionally withholding official grain weighing and inspection services at this time” because it “does not believe that the situation at the Port of Vancouver would ensure safe access,” according to an Aug. 4 letter from Edward Avalos, USDA’s undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs.
Meanwhile, federal grain inspectors continue to work at the Columbia Grain facility in Portland, Ore., which is also subject to pickets by the longshoremen’s union.
Both export terminals locked out workers from the International Longshore and Warehouse Union last year due to a dispute over labor contract negotiations.
“We don’t understand what they see as any difference,” said Pat McCormick, spokesman for the grain handlers.
The lack of grain inspections at the United Grain facility has seriously diminished the company’s ability to export grain, he said.
United Grain was able to load two ships with about 3 million bushels of grain in July because it obtained inspection waivers from the buyer, the buyer’s nation and the USDA, McCormick said.
Obtaining such waivers is difficult, however, so United Grain will probably only be able to load a fraction of the 17 million bushels scheduled to move through the facility in August, he said.
Additionally, the BNSF railroad has suspended its operations at the site due to congestion, he said.
“It’s already backing grain up in the pipeline,” McCormick said. “It’s going to create congestion upstream.”
The USDA is still reviewing the safety situation at the facility but it’s unclear how long that assessment will take, said Dexter Thomas, acting chief of staff of the agency’s Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration.
McCormick said the USDA sent safety inspectors to examine the United Grain facility twice in July.
One of the inspectors told a United Grain executive that the terminal is safe, but then the administrator of USDA-GIPSA told the company it had reached the opposite conclusion, McCormick said.
The actions of USDA and WSDA seem to be an unprecedented use of grain inspections as a tool to influence a labor dispute, which creates a reputation problem for the U.S. grain industry among overseas buyers, he said.
Capital Press was unable to reach the longshoremen’s union for comment as of press time.
In a previous statement about the situation, ILWU said the grain inspectors felt unsafe because of conditions created by United Grain and noted that “they are union members themselves who generally don’t want to cross picket lines.”
Hector Castro, spokesman for WSDA, said that individual inspectors may have their own opinions, but the agency’s decision was not influenced by union sympathies.
“It’s always been a safety issue for us,” he said, adding that the WSDA has documented more than 100 instances of hostile and harassing behavior by longshoremen at the terminal.
The inspectors who usually worked at United Grain have been reassigned to other facilities for the time being, Castro said. “Everywhere else, we’re functioning normally.”