A mighty challenge to secure the Mississippi from terror

Hodgepodge of agencies checks bridges and ports

April 13, 2003|By Tim Jones | Tim Jones,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ST. LOUIS - The man under the Lewis and Clark Bridge looked suspicious to Lt. Fred Stipkovits, who quickly cut the speed of the small Coast Guard inflatable and turned upriver.

"You see that guy?" he asked, stopping to take a closer look.

"Yeah," said Chief Petty Officer Philip Pashia, standing in the bow with binoculars to get a fix on the man.

Moments later, the two Coast Guardsmen, who were on routine anti-terrorism patrol on the Mississippi River, discovered that the man they were watching was an inspector with the Missouri Transportation Department, and he was just doing his job.

Like a police officer walking the neighborhood beat, Stipkovits turned the orange boat down the serpentine Mississippi and headed toward St. Louis, looking for signs of trouble amid bridges, locks, 1,200-foot barges, power plants, refineries, municipal water intakes, riverboat casinos, pleasure boaters and the ubiquitous fishermen.

This is homeland security on the Mighty Mississippi.

The scope of the challenge here contrasts with far more conspicuous security efforts in major cities, where dozens of armed guards provide round-the-clock protection for stadiums, major landmarks, public buildings and large office complexes.

Here in the nation's midsection, 38 Coast Guard regulars and about three dozen reservists make the rounds of the Upper Mississippi region, a vast expanse that covers 12 states, encompasses parts of the Missouri River, and includes 2,200 miles of rivers, 1,900 miles of navigable waterways and 271 bridges.

On the wide-open spaces of rivers and shorelines, strewn with trash, old tires, abandoned barges and rotting tree limbs, the call for public vigilance in the fight against terrorism takes on new meaning.

The security effort involves a patchwork quilt of law enforcement officers, the Army Corps of Engineers, lockmasters, tugboat pilots, fishermen and other denizens of the sprawling yet insular community of river people. They are the trained eyes and ears of a small-town environment. They know the regulars, and they can quickly spot strangers.

"It's kind of like the shore patrols in World War II, looking for U-boats," said Cmdr. Eric Washburn, commanding officer of the St. Louis-based Coast Guard region. "We talk to citizens who know the neighborhood."

This is a busy and commercially important area and an inviting target. Every day more than a quarter-million people cross seven metropolitan St. Louis highway bridges linking Illinois and Missouri. The port of St. Louis is the largest inland port in the Midwest and the second-largest in the nation behind Pittsburgh's. More than 34 million tons of coal, grain, fertilizer, fuel oil and other bulk items moved on the river in 2001, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.

All this transportation and economic infrastructure makes St. Louis a potential terrorist target, Coast Guard and Homeland Security Department officials warn. Last month, St. Louis police assigned officers to watch Mississippi River bridges around the clock after the FBI learned of possible threats to bridges in New York, San Francisco and St. Louis. Nothing has come of the threat.

In the months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and other government officials warned of the threat to dozens of U.S. seaports, such as New Orleans, Houston, New York and Long Beach, Calif., all of which receive cargo from foreign vessels.

Inland ports, such as Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Huntington, W.Va., and Memphis, Tenn., are closed to foreign vessels. But Coast Guard officials say that does not eliminate the threat that barges, tugs and other watercraft could be used as weapons. A tug pushing 15 barges carries the equivalent of 870 large semitractor-trailers. It can carry 6.8 million gallons of gasoline.

"A worst-case scenario is bridge damage, loss of life and debris disrupting navigation," said Lt. Chris O'Neil, assistant chief of the Coast Guard's inspections department in St. Louis. The Coast Guard and other officials "can't be everywhere at once," he added. "Every good street cop is going to rely on citizens in the area for information."

The security effort is not entirely based on human contact. At the large Mel Price Lock and Dam north of St. Louis, new security fences, closed-circuit television and light sensors monitor activity around the facility.

Tim Jones is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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