Harbor hazards

July 12, 2005

NOTHING COULD better symbolize the shortcomings of port security than the front-page photograph in Sunday's Sun of a weather-beaten block of wood sitting on top of a pole. Without the funds to buy enough actual video equipment, authorities have resorted to decoy cameras (and ones so unconvincing they're likely to fool only the most near-sighted of terrorists). But as reporters Michael Dresser and Greg Barrett point out, wooden cameras aren't the only vulnerability on Baltimore's waterfront. Police are understaffed, the shoreline is largely unpatrolled, alarms malfunction, gates are unsecured and fencing - some with holes carved out by people who go there to fish - is inadequate.

This is not a problem unique to Baltimore. The United States has 360 commercial ports handling more than 7,500 foreign ships and 95 percent of all overseas trade. Their importance to the nation's economy cannot be overstated. A recent analysis suggests that an eight-day shutdown of all U.S. ports would cost more than $58 billion. And ports are particularly at risk because they handle highly toxic materials and are located near population centers but are difficult to defend because their sprawling facilities may include miles of land and water.

Maryland transportation officials say Baltimore's port is much more secure than it was prior to 9/11. No doubt that's true. But it's disappointing that they're not more alarmed by the outstanding vulnerabilities, as others in the industry are. The U.S. Coast Guard has estimated that ports need to spend $5.4 billion to enhance security, yet since 9/11, the federal government has provided only about one-tenth of that amount.

That places an impossible burden on ports such as Baltimore's that simply can't afford to finance needed improvements themselves. Experts say Department of Homeland Security grants have mostly paid for ports to upgrade perimeter fences and lighting. Unfortunately, some federal assistance has been wasted - sometimes directed at facilities that aren't high-risk. DHS Inspector General Richard L. Skinner has estimated that $67 million in port security grants have gone to questionable projects.

But even more alarming is the threat that the cargo itself may pose. The nightmare scenario is that terrorists may hide a weapon of mass destruction inside a container. The Government Accountability Office recently noted that perhaps only one in five "high-risk" containers is ever inspected. The problem? Lack of money to get it done.

In the wake of the London bombings, members of Congress are calling for more to be spent to keep U.S. transit systems safe. That's prudent under the circumstances, but must something equally horrendous happen to a major port for Washington to recognize that risk, too? The nation has spent $18 billion to make air travel safer. A policy of inspecting the shoes of every air passenger but leaving untouched 40-foot-long shipping containers is, in a word, stupefying. Congress ought to be able to make sure the nation's first line of defense isn't a wooden block stuck on a pole.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.