Port security slows flow of commerce

New measures also mean it may cost more for ships to dock, unload cargo

War In Iraq

March 21, 2003|By Paul Adams | Paul Adams,SUN STAFF

Every ship, truck and cargo container that moves through the port of Baltimore is getting more scrutiny today as state and federal inspectors beef up their front-line defenses in response to war and heightened terror fears.

Though the Coast Guard and Customs Service have added manpower to port operations, the increased security measures mean it may cost more and take longer for ships to reach port and unload their cargo.

The news comes as some steamship lines serving Baltimore face the prospect of higher insurance premiums if they continue to call on ports in the Middle East, where war with Iraq has raised the threat to commercial shipping. Baltimore is a major launching point for automobiles and parts heading to the Persian Gulf region.

"The top priority is to protect the port and industry," said Capt. Lorenzo Di Casagrande, vice president of Mediterranean Shipping Co., the world's second-largest steamship line and one of the port's biggest customers. "Of course, there are additional expenses and those go primarily to the shippers and the consignees. They have to face the reality that there are additional costs."

For Brent Brinkley, it's about time and money. In the days before war and threats of terrorism, the Baltimore truck driver could breeze past the gate at the Dundalk Marine Terminal, drive up to a waiting ship and take on cargo with hardly a second look.

Now he knows to expect lots of questions and increased scrutiny from state and federal inspectors, who want to know details about who he is, where he is going and what he is hauling.

"There's usually a line coming into the pier itself," said Brinkley, who was waiting for his terminal inspection receipt yesterday at Dundalk. "It's a little longer than usual."

About 4,000 trucks pass through the port's public marine terminals daily. An additional 2,000 cars pass through Dundalk's visitors gate. Beginning this week, the Maryland Port Administration began requiring each driver to produce picture identification before entering.

Port officials and truck drivers say new security measures implemented after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have caused mostly minor delays in the flow of commerce. But they have required changes in how the port does business.

P&O Ports, which manages the Maryland International Terminal at Dundalk, said the company has added drivers to keep up with the Customs Services' increased demands for cargo inspections. Each container the agency wants to inspect must be driven to a special location, where it can be scanned by X-ray or opened by hand.

"We have a certain number of drivers who are tied up with the scanning process," said Larry Jones, P&O's terminal manager at Dundalk.

Coast Guard and customs inspectors also spend more time at the company's port offices examining cargo manifests and other documents, looking for anything that might prompt added scrutiny.

"It hasn't been a serious impact at this point," Jones said of the added attention to cargo and paperwork. "It's something we've been able to adjust to."

Since President Bush raised the nation's terror alert Monday, customs officials have temporarily diverted some office staff to the port of Baltimore and Baltimore-Washington International Airport. That has allowed the agency to inspect more shipping containers, while minimizing delays as much as possible.

Similarly, the Coast Guard has called up about 3,000 reservists to help with port inspections along the East Coast. Crews have increased patrols around bridges and other sensitive structures. In addition, more cargo ships are being boarded before arriving in port, allowing Coast Guard officials to check crew documents and examine cargo manifests before docking.

"It may slow down [commercial shipping] traffic a little bit, but we've been bringing in more people," said Kimberly Smith, a Coast Guard spokeswoman.

The vessel boardings are an inconvenience for steamship lines, but most have adapted. For example, HUAL North America Inc., which transports tens of thousands of General Motors, Ford and DaimlerChrysler cars from Baltimore to the Middle East annually, appoints a security officer aboard each vessel as part of a new anti-terrorism initiative.

Jim Butcher, president of the ocean carrier, said the company plans to keep sailing from Baltimore to the Middle East. But he expects the company's insurer to raise its rates.

"It's our intention to keep the ships moving," said Butcher, noting that the steamship line kept a full schedule during the 1991 Persian Gulf war. "We anticipate there may be a war risk surcharge, and we have notified our customers of that."

War risk insurance can add hundreds of dollars to the cost of shipping a single cargo container, said Gerard Mangone, a University of Delaware professor of maritime law. Some insurers have been known to raise rates by 50 percent on ships heading into a war zone. The cost is typically passed on to customers and, ultimately, consumers.

"People carrying goods and services into that area are going to be at greater risk, there's no question about that," he said. "In the next week or so, we'll find that some carriers will be hesitant."

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