As part of a major effort to protect U.S. ports from terrorists, Maryland terminals were awarded $5.5 million yesterday to make improvements, from installing a fingerprint identity system to more secure fencing.
The federal government has ordered public and private terminals at the nation's 360 ports to take extensive measures to shore up all entry points and to more closely monitor workers, cargo and vessels. The Coast Guard has estimated the cost of doing that at more than $7 billion.
The money awarded to Maryland yesterday was part of a $179 million allocation from the Department of Homeland Security.
"The department is committed to improving security at our maritime facilities, and we know that our ports are not secured from Washington. The relationship between the government and the private companies that run these facilities is a crucial one that we are committed to strengthening to protect our nation's ports," said Asa Hutchinson, the department's under secretary for border and transportation security, in a statement.
Grants went to 442 projects submitted by 235 applicants across the nation.
With previous rounds of financing, about $424 million has been awarded nationally to bolster security at ports. By comparison, more than $3 billion, or about seven times as much, has been spent on airport security.
Officials are trying to prevent weapons or explosives from being smuggled in through the ports. A sting operation revealed efforts by a British arms dealer to ship a Russian missile through the port of Baltimore. The man was arrested in August and the missile never made it to the port.
In Maryland, the state port administration, which operates the public terminals in the port of Baltimore, was given the bulk of yesterday's award: $4.28 million. Several private terminals shared the remaining $1.3 million.
State officials say they will continue to seek more funds.
"We're not exactly sure what we'll ask for in the next round," said James J. White, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration. "We're trying to be smart in what we purchase."
So far, the port administration has received close to $11 million, less than one-third of the $37 million for which it has applied, he said. He could not say how much more the port will need to implement all the required upgrades.
The needs will become clearer by the end of the year when each public and private terminal operator is required to submit a formal security plan to the Coast Guard.
The port has banked its previous grant money. Once its plan is complete and approved, it will begin sending out bids for equipment and work. White said the port needs to ensure that the changes do not interfere with commerce or jeopardize its competitiveness. About 30 million tons of cargo moves annually through the port of Baltimore.
Historically, about 2 percent of the cargo had been inspected by U.S. Customs agents across the country, although White said that has increased 6 percent to 8 percent recently.
Apart from the grant money, the port of Baltimore has also received two machines - costing $3 million each - from the federal government that use gamma rays to measure the density of cargo containers. The measurements can be compared to the ship's manifest to determine more quickly if a cargo is suspicious.
Some local terminal operators have not been organized enough to apply for grants or have been turned down. Others have received federal aid for security enhancements.
Westway Terminal Co., which operates a liquid bulk storage facility and a feed processing plant in Locust Point, received $350,250 as part of yesterday's grants. An official there said the money should cover much of its security-related expenses.
John Mitchell, terminal manager, said he had been denied federal financing twice before but kept applying. He said he was overwhelmed when the Homeland Security agency issued its security requirements for the ports.
"When the security directive came out, it was like 50 to 100 pages, and we had thought we were already secure, but we discovered we were not," he said.
"We had fences, but not the right fences. We had barbed wire, but it wasn't facing the right way. We had no access controls. We had video cameras not pointed in enough directions and we didn't have enough lights," he said.
Other local operations that won federal grants include Liquid Transfer Terminals Inc., Motiva Enterprises LLC and Rukert Terminals Corp.