Private role key in port security

Business pressed to play part as federal funds slip

May 23, 2007|By Allison Connolly | Allison Connolly,Sun reporter

Private companies need to "up the ante" in securing the nation's ports from terrorism, the nation's first homeland security chief said yesterday.

"The public sector and the private sector have done a pretty good job, but there's more to do," Thomas J. Ridge told the second annual Homeland Port Security Conference, sponsored by the U.S. Naval Institute at the Maryland Port Administration's Cruise Terminal.

Local officials echoed that sentiment after the federal government cut security funding for the Helen Delich Bentley Port of Baltimore by more than 60 percent.

Since the Department of Homeland Security was formed in 2002, the Baltimore port has received $22 million in federal port security grants, said F. Brooks Royster III, director of the Maryland Port Administration. This month, the government announced Baltimore will receive just $1.9 million in the next fiscal year, down from $4.8 million in the current year.

"Is it all we'd like to have? No," Royster said. "Have we made significant progress in making the port more secure? Certainly."

But, he added, security has to be tackled with the port's business in mind: If you "build Fort Baltimore, you have no commerce."

The nation's 361 ports have received far less federal money for security upgrades than the nation's airports, to the tune of nearly $20 billion. On average, only about 5 percent of the cargo that comes through U.S. ports is inspected.

Ridge acknowledged that not every container can be inspected logistically. The shipment of goods around the world has become so efficient that slowing it down would cost time and money.

For example, he said a 10-day lockout of West Coast dock workers at 29 ports in 2002 during a contract dispute cost the economy about $2 billion a day, according to estimates at the time.

Port officials realize that they have to balance security with commerce or else the consumer will end up paying for it at the cash register.

"When you see something in J.C. Penney, you think about the cost. You don't think about how it got there," said Herb Packer, executive director of PennPorts, which oversees Pennsylvania's ports.

Members of the private sector agreed.

Allan Thompson, vice president for global supply chain policy for the Retail Industry Leaders Association, said its members - including Target, Wal-Mart, Nike and Best Buy - have taken it upon themselves to identify threats and vulnerabilities within their own supply chains, from their manufacturing plants to store shelves.

"Our members feel that you have to integrate security into the supply chain, not on top of it," he said.

During a half-hour cruise before the conference started, attendees got a firsthand look at the potential economic vulnerability.

From the cargo ships that deliver BMWs from Germany and reams of high-quality paper from Finland to infrastructure like the Key Bridge, a terrorist attack - or the threat of one - would cost the state and its companies millions of dollars per day if the port were to shut down. The port handles 35 million tons of cargo a year, representing $35 billion worth of trade and generating $230 million in tax revenue for the state, according to port officials.

"There hasn't been an incident," said Coast Guard Capt. Brian Kelley, who serves as captain of the port. "That's not to say there aren't threats. There are threats every day."

This fall, port officials will join the Coast Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency and the private sector in a training exercise called "Nautical Shield 2007." In the scenario, a simulatedchemical will be released during a terrorist attack and the various parties will respond. Kelley, the captain of the port, said companies that import and export cargo through Baltimore will be key participants in the exercise, as they would be during a real incident.

"In the heat of the battle, it's not a good time to be exchanging business cards," Kelley said.

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