Hyundai Merchant Marine can afford to take its time opening its new terminal at the Port of Tacoma. The nearly $100 million construction project was completed nearly a year ahead of schedule.

Yet Vice President of Operations Mike Lingerfelt remains silent on the reasons behind a decision to postpone indefinitely the opening that had been scheduled for this month.

Officials of Local 23 of the International Longshore & Warehouse Union seem perplexed by the suggestion in recent news reports that it has something to do with the delay.

“I don’t think there’s any sort of problem,” says the union’s acting President Tony DePaul. “We don’t negotiate with individual operators—they run their business and we supply the labor.”

The relationship is guided by a general contract between the union and West Coast operators, he explains. The only topic of discussion he knows of is a supplement to the master agreement covering maintenance and repair. He’d hardly call it negotiations, he adds.

The objective, he says, is to modify the agreement to suit the needs of Hyundai Merchant Marine.

“A supplemental agreement can cover issues ranging from overtime to whether crews will wear coveralls while on the job,” he says.

Upon returning to Tacoma after being out of town for two weeks, he declined to specify what topics are at issue in the current discussions but denied there was contentiousness on either side.

“The 15 maintenance and repair workers needed at Hyundai Merchant Marine are already on the job,” he said.

They are the only union workers on the job so far at the Hyundai site, he said, but union and Hyundai officials agree that’s because there’s nothing for anyone else to do there for the time being.

Supervisory staff reportedly have been putting the systems at the new terminal through their paces during a series of shake-down visits by cargo ships carrying empty containers.

“Part of the testing involved Blair Waterway and the turning basin,” says Lingerfelt. Both the waterway and the basin underwent extensive modifications during construction of the terminal to assure that the huge cargo ships would have no difficulty getting to and from their destinations. Some tests involved alternative approaches to maneuvering the vessels around the terminal.

The visits also have given Lingerfelt and other Hyundai Merchant Marine officials an opportunity to assure themselves that complex computer systems are working properly. So far they report no unexpected glitches.

“There are bugs in any system,” says Lingerfelt. “The tests give us a chance to debug them. But we haven’t encountered any major obstacles. We never expected to. We’re not developing rocket science here. We’re applying very proven methods and software.”

As to why Hyundai put off the opening, Lingerfelt has said: “It has been delayed. I won’t discuss the reasons.” Journal of Commerce reported a dispute over clerk staffing levels was the reason.

When it does open, the terminal will be the point of entry for what Lingerfelt characterizes as everything from soup to nuts—manufactured goods from Asia such as clothing , electronics, you name it. Typical exports will be commodities such as apples and seafood, anything that will fit in the containers Hyundai’s cargo ships carry.

That means no cars. Hyundai Merchant Marine is a subsidiary of the Korean automaker, but this won’t the port of entry for cars bound for markets inside the United States.

By George Pica, Business Examiner staff