U.S. grain backlog to ease after firms, union reach tentative deal

Chicago | Reuters — A backlog in grain shipments from the biggest U.S. West Coast terminal should start easing as inspections resumed on Tuesday, after unions and grain companies reached a tentative agreement to end a labour dispute.

The agreement, between port workers and a group of Pacific Northwest grain companies, was announced by a federal mediator earlier on Tuesday, ending over two years of dispute.

“We’re pleased to have a settlement and get back to normal operations,” Pat McCormick, a spokesman for the grain handlers, told Reuters on Tuesday.

Washington state officials had stopped inspecting grain in the past month at the Port of Vancouver, a facility on the Columbia River owned by United Grain Corp., a unit of Japanese trading house Mitsui.

Officials from Washington state’s Department of Agriculture visited the terminal on Tuesday and decided it was safe for inspectors to return to the site, McCormick said.

The agreement between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and United Grain, and two other grain handlers, Louis Dreyfus and Marubeni’s Columbia Grain, must now be ratified by union members. Results of the vote will be announced on Aug. 25, a union spokeswoman said.

Neither the union nor the grain handlers could provide details of the contract ahead of the vote.

United Grain had commitments to export 20 million bushels of grain in August, which included 2.8 million bushels rolled over from July as shipments backed up when inspectors pulled out. The state government withdrew police protection for inspectors to cross the union’s picket line on July 7.

There were concerns the backlogs would have worsened when record-large corn and soybean harvests start arriving to PNW export terminals in the coming month.

The Port of Vancouver is the largest of nine grain export facilities in the Pacific Northwest and moves nearly 20 per cent of the region’s wheat, corn and soybean exports and more than 40 per cent of the grain destined for Japan.

About a quarter of all U.S. grain exports are shipped out of the Pacific Northwest, second only to the Gulf of Mexico.

— Christine Stebbins reports for Reuters from Chicago.

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