Unsafe harbor

September 23, 2004|By Matthew Brzezinski

"THAT," SAID my guide, "is where I'd strike if I was a terrorist." We were bobbing in a police launch in the Inner Harbor, staring at the promenade outside the Pratt Street Pavilion. "I'd fill a small boat with explosives," he continued, "and crash it right there. It would take 48 hours for the tide just to flush out the bodies from under the boardwalk."

It was on this grisly note that my terror tour of Baltimore began. In counterterrorist jargon, it was called a vulnerability assessment, and in the year following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, all of the nation's large cities and 361 ports were conducting them. For the next two hours, my host, an otherwise affable officer with the Baltimore Police Department's special operations unit, Sgt. George McClaskey, pointed out the broad array of dangers that lurked beyond every wharf.

"Look at that barge," he said, nodding toward a tug hauling a barge full of diesel fuel off in the distance. "A beautiful weapon."

We rounded Locust Point and steamed past the container terminals, where any one of the thousands of 40-foot-long shipping containers unloaded each day could contain a nuclear device. In the industrial sector of the port, the list of potential terrorist targets multiplied: oil terminals, liquid natural gas storage tanks and large petrochemical facilities. Across Curtis Bay, thick white plumes rose from smokestacks of the W. R. Grace Co. chemical plant.

"They make some really nasty stuff there," said Sergeant McClaskey. "Highly toxic."

Even the Domino sugar refinery, with its sticky-sweet flammable dust, now posed a potential security threat: "Most people don't think about it, but that's a giant bomb."

Three years have passed since the United States started taking stock of its myriad vulnerabilities. In the interim, we have held innumerable commissions on our weaknesses and spent billions of dollars creating a government agency specifically tasked with redressing them. But what have we actually done to shore up our defenses? The short answer is not that much, sometimes nothing at all.

Take the chemical plants that produce "nasty stuff," in the words of the BPD officer. There are 15,000 of them scattered around the country. Most are barely protected with a chain-link fence. Many are in areas with populations of over a million. A single rail car or tanker truck filled with 33,000 gallons of chlorine or ammonia could kill 100,000 people, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. A plant could wipe out an entire city.

Following 9/11, bipartisan legislation was introduced in Washington that sought to codify perimeter and transport security of toxic chemicals. But a concerted lobbying effort by energy companies, worried about the extra costs involved, led Republican lawmakers to withdraw their support, and the Chemical Security Act died on the vine.

Instead, Republican Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma proposed that chemical plants police themselves and that government have no oversight on safety regulations. As a result, virtually anyone can still gain entry to thousands of dangerous chemical sites around the country.

It's not only the specter of a chemical Chernobyl that looms large over industrial port cities such as Baltimore. The danger of a radioactive device smuggled inside a shipping container, so chillingly captured in the Hollywood thriller The Sum of All Fears, remains largely undefended. Nearly 17 million cargo containers enter the country each year, 95 percent of them without any physical inspection whatsoever, and the United States still does not have adequate radiation detectors at its ports of entry.

The hand-held personal radiation detectors used by U.S. Customs and Border Protection have proved woefully ineffective, according to Government Accountability Office inspector general reports -- unable even to distinguish between gamma radiation and the far more lethal neutrons emitted by plutonium and weapons-grade uranium. After 9/11, customs bought 4,000 of the PRDs, which are crude little Geiger counters that measure radiation at a close distance.

More sophisticated fixed radiation portals -- next-generation Geiger counters that are 4 feet tall and scan all traffic that passes near them -- would solve some of the problem. But most of our ports don't have them. In fact, temporary portals had to be flown to Los Angeles/Long Beach, which handles 40 percent of all seaborne cargo container traffic, ahead of a media day and visit this summer by Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge.

Why America's largest port didn't have one is baffling, especially given the relatively low cost of deploying such measures. It would cost roughly $290 million -- the equivalent of less than one day's spending on Iraq -- to outfit all our ports of entry with radiation portals. The 2005 budget, however, allots only $43 million for radiation portals. Where would the money be better spent?

Matthew Brzezinski is the author of Fortress America: On the Front Lines of Homeland Security -- An Inside Look at the Coming Surveillance State.

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