Daily Breeze

November 07, 2003

Officials lobby for port security
TERRORISM: Area politicians say Los Angeles and Long Beach harbors continue to be vulnerable to attack.

By TOBY ECKERT
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON — Officials from Los Angeles and the L.A.-Long Beach port complex went on a lobbying blitz here Thursday for more federal security funding, saying that ports remain highly vulnerable to a terrorist attack and that current funding is woefully inadequate.

While Congress moved quickly to fund security improvements at airports after the 9-11 terrorist attacks, it has not shown a similar sense of urgency when it comes to addressing the threat to ports, the officials said.

“We think the airports in America have really gotten the attention, have really gotten the kind of funding that has made them safe,” said Los Angeles Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who led the delegation. “We just don’t think that’s happened at port complexes and we feel vulnerable. We still feel like the nation’s economy, jobs, the lives of all the people who live around the port complexes are in constant jeopardy.”

The Los Angeles officials endorsed a proposal by Reps. Jane Harman, D-El Segundo, and Doug Ose, R-Sacramento, that would dedicate to port security a portion of shipping duties collected by U.S. Customs. The officials said shippers would resist new fees imposed at the local level, an approach favored by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Huntington Beach, whose district includes the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports.

The delegation pressed its case in meetings with the California lawmakers and homeland security officials.

Security experts have warned repeatedly that terrorists could inflict a devastating blow to the U.S. economy by attacking a major port or using a cargo container to smuggle in a nuclear or biological weapon, which could halt port commerce for an extended period.

Harman, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said ports are “probably among the top vulnerabilities we have in this country.”

Congress approved a port security bill last year but failed to provide funding to carry out its mandates. The Department of Homeland Security has distributed $337 million in port security grants since 2002 and is expected to distribute $105 million more soon.

But federal officials have acknowledged that is not enough to cover the security tab, which has been estimated at $7.3 billion over 10 years.

Security upgrades at the Los Angeles-Long Beach ports could total $500 million over the next five years, including a facility for inspecting suspect cargo containers, city and port officials said. Some of the containers are now trucked to outlying areas for inspection, passing along freeways and past some residential areas, said Larry Keller, executive director of the Port of Los Angeles.

The port has received $4.8 million in grant funding, including $2.5 million for a container inspection facility study, after requesting $97 million. Long Beach sought $60 million, but got about $18 million.

The officials complained that the competitive grant program makes it difficult to do long-term planning and is not tied to an objective assessment of risk.

“It’s driven by a process of who writes the best essay, so to speak, will get that money,” said Los Angeles Port Police Chief Noel Cunningham. “How can you actually do a security program if it’s a roll of the dice?”

The Transportation Security Administration, a division of the Homeland Security Department, defended the grant procedures.

“We have a very stringent process. Obviously that process is based on the information (the ports) provide to us,” spokesman Darrin Kayser said.

As for the overall funding level, Kayser said, “We just give out what Congress appropriates to us.”

South Bay lawmakers are split on the best approach to helping out the ports. The Ose-Harman legislation would use a portion of the $15.6 billion in shipping duties already collected each year.

“This is a federal responsibility. Providing for the common defense is in the U.S. Constitution,” Harman said.

Rohrabacher’s bill would allow port authorities to collect fees on cargo containers from importers and exporters and use the money for security projects.

“He’d like something that’s levied at the ports and stays at the ports to spend as they see fit,” said Rohrabacher spokesman Aaron Lewis.

Keller said new fees would be resisted by shippers and ports would also be reluctant to levy fees that would put them at a disadvantage to other ports.

“The last thing we want to do is outprice ourselves in a world market,” Keller said.