A veteran Columbia River pilot says he's concerned that he could be compelled to steer a ship to the EGT grain terminal at the Port of Longview — even if mass protests create a risky environment.
Phillip Massey, 62, of Kalama, said he isn't taking sides in the ongoing labor dispute between union longshoremen and EGT. However, he said pilots could be caught in a pinch: They risk losing their licenses if they decline to pilot a vessel, and they risk possible retaliation from protesters if they do.
"I'm trying to navigate the middle," Massey said in an interview Wednesday.
River pilots are the mandated guides for large vessels and freighters sailing on Columbia from Astoria to inland ports.
Massey has worked as a Columbia River pilot since 1996 and spent 45 years in the maritime industry. He said he knows other pilots have expressed similar concerns, but he stressed that he does not speak for the Columbia River Pilots Association, which determines scheduling. The pilots are paid as independent contractors by the shippers.
A large number of protesters is expected to greet the EGT ship. Massey said he's not concerned that local longshoremen will cause problems for the pilots, but fringe elements from the hundreds or even thousands of out-of-town protesters might resort to harassment even after the ship has come and gone.
Also, a strong law-enforcement presence might add fuel to the fire, Massey said.
If he's scheduled to pilot a ship headed for EGT, Massey said he would take into the account safety factors, such as whether any smaller ships are blocking the freighter, before deciding whether to pilot the vessel.
"If it's unacceptable, I don't think I would do it," he said.
At the same time, Massey said he realizes the pilots have an important responsibility to provide service to all vessels, regardless of the cargo.
"Within the profession, I think we are pushing ourselves to provide the service. That's what we do, pilot the ships," Massey said.
A date of the first ship's arrival to pick up grain from the EGT terminal has not been determined.
The uncertain situation surrounding the EGT ship has little precedent on the Columbia River, but the rules for pilots are clear, said Kim Duncan, chairwoman of the Oregon Board of Maritime Pilots, a regulating agency.
"The pilot must board the ship. It's unequivocal. If someone defied that obligation, then there would be a disciplinary hearing," she said.
Duncan added that pilots could lose their license or face lesser penalties for refusing to board the ship, even if they see possible safety hazards.
The pilots' association is directing members to obey state law, according to Captain Paul Amos, the group's president.
"With our license comes an obligation to comply with the rules set by the Oregon Board of Maritime Pilots and we take that responsibility very seriously. If an individual pilot feels his or her safety is at risk, that is an issue between the individual pilot and the Board of Maritime Pilots to resolve," Amos said in a written statement.
The U.S. Coast Guard will escort the EGT ship up the river to Longview, and local law enforcement also are expected to have a solid presence.
The International Longshore and Warehouse Union has argued for about a year that EGT should be required to hire union longshore labor for the 25 to 35 jobs inside the terminal. The company disagrees, and the dispute is expected to go before a federal judge this spring.
ILWU workers have staffed all West Coast grain terminals since the 1930s, and union officials are concerned a loss at EGT would weaken their positions in future contract negotiations with other grain companies.
The ILWU, Cowlitz-Wahkiakum Central Labor Council and Occupy Longview have put out nationwide calls to protest the arrival of the EGT ship. The labor groups, however, are urging their members to avoid blocking the ship or interfering with maritime commerce in any way.
A federal judge has already has fined the union more than $300,000 for blocking grain deliveries by rail and allegedly damaging the terminal in defiance of a court order. Police have made more than 130 arrests of ILWU workers and supporters in connection with protests at the terminal.
Occupy organizers say they hope to somehow thwart the loading of the grain ship by blocking access to the Port of Longview. The group's organizers say they are planning a peaceful protest, similar to a Dec. 12 demonstration that shut down the port for a half day.