Block at the dock

Port commissioner Jack Block was in the middle of controversial toxic waste shipment.

SEATTLE PORT commissioner Jack Block is one busy guy. When he's not keeping an eye on the Port's $2.5 billion in property and annual quarter billion take from operations, or off on fact-finding and sales missions to China, Holland, Canada, and Japan, he's sweating away four or five nights a week as a dock foreman and longtime proud member of the Longshoreman's Union Local 98. Block, however, doesn't have to come down and check the call boards like any ordinary container jock. He rates as a "steady," guaranteed 50 hours of employment per week by one of the Port customers he's elected to oversee by the voters: Stevedoring Services of America [SSA], one of the biggest firms in the world among businesses handling off-loading, loading, and routing of cargo for shippers worldwide. Block, of course, doesn't qualify for his generous retainer from SSA during periods when he is away meeting with fellow Port honchos, as he is this week in Japan.

His SSA retainer explains, so the story goes, why Block was on the scene the night of Wednesday, April 5, when the Chinese container ship Wang He was warped up to the Port's Pier 18. The ship's miscellaneous cargo included 14 "cans" of PCB-contaminated military hardware from US Army bases in Japan.

The 90-ton shipment was originally bound for Vancouver, BC, not Seattle. But port officials there, discovering that no firm delivery address was attached to the consignment, understandably balked at accepting it to be set aside until called for.

Port of Seattle officials seem to have had no such compunctions. Between Tuesday morning, when the Port of Vancouver announced its decision, and the arrival of the Wang He at 9pm Wednesday, the Port of Seattle had expedited a deal between a panicky Department of Defense and a reluctant Environmental Protection Agency by offering to sequester the polluted containers for up to 30 days in Seattle's Pier 104's "foreign trade zone" while a plan was worked out for their disposal.

But about the same time Vancouver officials tipped their Seattle brethren to the trouble headed their way, Vancouver longshoremen were getting the word to their brothers and sisters at Local 19 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. Well before the Wang He arrived to an electronic media welcoming committee that all but outnumbered the few dozen environmental protesters in attendance, the leadership at Local 19 had decided to refuse to unload the military portion of the cargo on the ground that it constituted a health and safety hazard to its members.

There's a standard procedure to be followed when that happens: First union and employer reps are supposed to meet in committee to see if the dispute can somehow be resolved. If it can't be, the contract calls for a nonpartisan arbitrator to be brought in, but in this case that wasn't necessary. An arbitrator was somehow already on hand before the committee could even be called to order—not just any old arbitrator, either, but the Port of Seattle's director of labor relations, John Swanson.

WITH A PORT OFFICIAL moonlighting as impartial arbitrator and Port commissioner Jack Block functioning as gang foreman in charge of getting the containers unloaded, it wouldn't have been surprising if the Local 19 crew had bowed to superior force. But they stuck it out, insisting, before submitting the case to arbitration, on two conditions: that unloading not proceed before 1pm the next day (it was now going on 4am), and that the containers, once unloaded, be immediately removed from the pier to reduce the longshore gangs' exposure to them to a minimum.

As expected, the arbitrator decided the containers constituted no significant hazard to the workers, and as noon Thursday approached Local 19 officials were preparing to comply with his order. But then Teamsters local 174 announced that its members—also on contractual health and safety grounds—would refuse to transport the containers to their designated temporary repository.

By this point, SSA could have started another arbitration procedure. But also by this point, the fuss was expanding beyond a couple of local union chapters and a gaggle of environmental protesters. Governor Gary Locke's office emitted some cautiously disapproving noises; Congressman Jim McDermott's office expressed solidarity with the workers.

More critical, though, was a letter from Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund threatening to sue just about everybody in sight should the containers be off-loaded. "The reason Congress passed a flat prohibition against importation of PCBs for any reason whatsoever is that they discovered they couldn't trust the EPA to enforce its own rules," says Earthjustice attorney Todd True. "It seemed like every case that came up was an exceptional case—just like this one."

Whatever factor tipped the balance—press attention, protests, labor resistance, threat of litigation—SSA threw in the towel. The PCB-containing cans were carefully set aside, the remaining legitimate cargo off-loaded, and the Wang He set off, already a couple of costly days behind schedule, on the next leg of its endlessly repeating Yokohama-Long Beach-Seattle-Vancouver loop.

No one knows what kind of reception the containers will get when they pull back into Yokohama, Japan, next week. What is known is that the Department of State is furious with slipshod Department of Defense procedures that very nearly caused an international incident. And for no legitimate reason whatsoever. There are companies both in the United States and abroad that make a thriving business of safely disposing of PCBs and other hazardous residues on-site, with no risky international shipments necessary.

For us locals, the questions that need answering are different. The Port of Seattle wasn't responsible for the problems created by the Port of Vancouver's refusal to deal with a load of toxic waste. Why did our Port jump so enthusiastically into the fray on the shipper's side? SSA is an important Port customer, as is the Wang He's owner, Cosco, a Chinese state shipping company. But important enough to connive at sidestepping US law, and associate its own employees and an elected official with efforts to "encourage" the longshore gang to do its duty?

Read Rick Anderson's 1999 expose of how Port of Seattle Commissioners spend public money.

Visit the Department of Ecology's page on PCBs in the environment.

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