Tunnel project feud grows following labor dispute

SEATTLE - A dust storm has stirred up a controversy with the viaduct replacement tunnel project, and it plays a role in an on-going labor dispute.

The longshoremen union says its workers temporarily shut down operations on two container ships last week, because of an apparent dust storm cloud coming from the tunnel project next door.

"And that dust plume traveled over that space effecting the operations at Terminal 46," says Cameron Williams, president of ILWU Local 19. "It was a health and safety issue."

The union says workers stopped work, waited several minutes and resumed work when dust cleared, but any delays cost shipping companies money.

The union has now sent a letter to the Port of Seattle complaining about several dust incidents with an implied warning - there could be more terminal delays because of the tunnel-related health and safety concerns.

"I wouldn't say that was a threat," Williams says. "It's a real likely scenario if a dust cloud, or any kind of safety issue, arises from the project."

A spokesperson for the Port of Seattle said the deal with the tunnel project is that there will be no disruption with terminal services, and that this letter really stems from a labor dispute with Seattle Tunnel Partners, who were named best-value bidder for the project in December 2010.

For nine days, longshoremen have been picketing the tunnel project over four jobs the union says are contractually theirs.

The jobs involve off loading tunnel dirt from a conveyor belt to a barge that will take the dirt to Port Ludlow. Maritime loading and unloading at the port are longshoremen jobs.

An arbitrator ruled the barge loading involves a contract with the tunnel project, not the port.

The longshoremen say the dust shut down has no connection to the labor dispute, but Seattle Tunnel Partners say the longshoremens picket line blocks access to Terminal 46.

"ILWU dispute is holding up work on the tunnel project," says Chris Dixon, Seattle Tunnel Partner spokesman. "Seattle Tunnel Partners cannot access Terminal 46 because the ILWU picket line is blocking Seattle Tunnel Partners access to Terminal 46."

Dixon continued, "Without being able to access Terminal 46, Seattle Tunnel Partners cannot operate the tunnel boring machine."

The real test of resolve will come when the dirt starts moving on the conveyor belt, and a barge shows up to take it away.

Bertha hasn't dug much in the 3 weeks she was supposed to be operating, only going about 20 feet so far.