Wheat harvest is well underway, and the largest grain shipping terminal in the Northwest is shut down.
With the ramping up of export activity expected to start next month, the situation would be troublesome even if it were just regional.
It’s not just regional.
Closure of the Port of Vancouver grain elevators not only threatens to interrupt export of Washington’s $1 billion crop, national farm groups are warning that the unprecedented breakdown of inspection activities at the port could endanger foreign buyer confidence in the reliability and integrity of the U.S. inspection system.
They’ve sent a letter asking U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to intervene. The Washington Department of Agriculture has made a similar request to the Federal Grain Inspection Service.
State grain inspectors have not entered the port since July 7, and without the sampling they do as wheat or other commodities are loaded aboard ship, and the documentation they provide, federal law says those ships cannot sail.
All of this started with a labor dispute.
Pickets from the International Longshore and Warehouse Union involved in a 17-month-long dispute with United Grain were harassing the state inspectors, although nothing physical was alleged. There has been vandalism. Gov. Jay Inslee, hoping to encourage negotiations, in October posted Washington State Patrol troopers at the gate to keep things civil.
But he rashly withdrew the troopers in June, saying they were not intended to be in place indefinitely, and there were no signs their presence was encouraging talks between the longshoremen and the company. Other law enforcement agencies want nothing to do with the situation.
The Vancouver Police Department had stopped providing security before the troopers showed up. The Clark County sheriff declined to get involved, so the state inspectors were redeployed to other elevators.
State law prohibits a private contract with the patrol. It’s not clear whether the port can pay for the protection.
Private security officers could observe, but not intervene.
Someone needs to intervene, and quickly.
Vilsack can order federal inspectors to take over, or he could waive some inspection requirements. Inslee can put the state patrol back at the gates, and the inspectors back in the terminal. It would be unfortunate if Washington forfeits responsibility for the inspections.
But there is a danger here larger than inspection powers.
Washington ports are fighting against other West and Gulf coast ports, including those in Canada, for cargo – grain, coal, cars, whatever. If our ports are not dependable, farmers from South Dakota, for example, who were among those signing the letter to Vilsack, can exercise other options.
Although a mediator has been involved in talks aimed at ending the lockout at Vancouver, and another in Portland, those talks need further encouragement from Democrats for whom labor is an ally.
We make much in Washington of our leadership in exports. We should act more like we mean it.