Better security ordered at ports

Ridge details new rules expected to cost $7 billion

Critical to nation's safety, he says

Md. estimates it will need more than $37 million

October 24, 2003|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

Baltimore and 360 other ports across the country are being ordered by the Department of Homeland Security to undertake more than $7 billion in security improvements - possibly the largest and costliest maritime initiative in history.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge outlined the new rules - calling for everything from low-tech fencing to sophisticated identification systems - in a speech at the port of Wilmington in Delaware yesterday.

"With 95 percent of our nation's overseas cargo carried by ship, maritime security is critical to ensuring our nation's homeland and economic security," Ridge said in prepared remarks.

The rules, which were published in the Federal Register on Wednesday, are a response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on Washington and New York.

Although attention, and money, have largely flowed to the nation's airports since the attacks, the push is now on to protect seaports.

Ridge said yesterday that all U.S. ports need to have a security plan in place by July. But maritime officials in Baltimore and others worry that carrying out Ridge's orders will be a daunting economic and operational challenge.

"There is not enough money to go around, yet the mandate is there," said Helen Delich Bentley, a former Baltimore congresswoman who works as a port consultant. "This is going to take an awful lot of doing."

Although the Coast Guard has estimated that the security improvements will cost $7.3 billion, only about $400 million has been allocated from federal sources. That compares with about $3 billion that has been provided for the nation's airports. Just how much more federal help the ports will receive has not been determined.

The Coast Guard estimates that more than 5,300 commercial ships, mostly foreign-owned, make more than 60,000 calls on U.S. ports a year. U.S. Customs officials have typically inspected only about 2 percent to 3 percent of the millions of containers on those ships, although that number is rising.

The new rules - which call for such things as security officers, a tracking system for cargo and crews, and emergency response drills - stem from the Maritime Transportation Security Act, which Congress approved in November.

Foreign ports also are under pressure to comply with similar rules established by the United Nations' International Maritime Organization, said Bentley, who recently returned from a port conference in Greece.

Bentley and Rep. Albert R. Wynn, a Maryland Democrat, said the port of Baltimore appears to be ahead of the curve.

The Maryland Port Administration, which oversees the state's public terminals, applied for $37 million in federal homeland security funding and has received $6.7 million so far. Officials have used some of the money for surveillance equipment, a patrol boat, a security guard and some perimeter fencing.

"We were pretty fortunate in that prior to Sept. 11, we were one of five ports that had a threat assessment done by the Coast Guard, so we have something to fall back on in preparing our plan," said James J. White, the port administration's executive director. "We will determine how to improve upon that. We're in the process now."

But Wynn said the port will need much more than the $37 million that has been requested. Inadequate funding could cost lives and interrupt commerce. Containers, he pointed out, enter through the port, but travel on roads and rails all over the region and nation.

Costs to protect the public - as well as the area's 126,700 maritime-related workers and the more than 300,000 containers that arrive in Baltimore each year - could be passed onto consumers.

"This is a matter of federal priorities, and we need to take a serious look at how we're spending money," Wynn said. "I think the plans will be ready, but ports are getting only a fraction of the financial assistance to implement the plans."

Other challenges faced by local port officials include understanding the process of implementing a security system and completing the various plans to the satisfaction of the Coast Guard, said Glen M. Paine, executive director of the Maritime Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies, a training organization in Linthicum.

Also needed will be training for security personnel and for the first responders to any terror attack.

Paine said the institute will continue offering courses and two- and three-day seminars into next year to help ports and maritime-related companies train workers.

"The sheer magnitude of this effort really is something we have never done before to the scale of this," Paine said.

To develop specific plans, the institute refers clients to companies such as Applied Marine Technology Inc. in Virginia Beach, Va.

Thomas G. Moser, director of special projects at Applied Marine Technology, said many ports and companies have some anti-terrorism procedures and equipment in place that was designed to protect against theft.

"We go in and look at what's in place now and what are the gaps in coverage," he said. "But we need not to interfere with the flow of commerce. We can make them secure and put them out of business in the same week."

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