June 10, 2004

Ports warn security funds needed

Copley News Service

WASHINGTON -- Warning that terrorist attacks that closed major seaports could cripple the nation's economy, a Los Angeles port official and sympathetic lawmakers Wednesday urged Congress to provide a guaranteed funding source for the billions of dollars it will cost to increase port security.

Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald, D-Carson, and Noel Cunningham, Port of Los Angeles operations director, noted that since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks the nation spent a total of $11 billion to improve airport security. But, they said, the Bush administration offered only $46 million next year for seaport security and Congress has authorized only $120 million.

"By failing to shore up the security of our ports, we are putting our economy at risk," Cunningham said in behalf of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and the American Association of Port Authorities.

Intelligence officials have warned that the nation's seaports are potentially a major terrorist target, Millender-McDonald said, and the Coast Guard estimates it will cost $5.4 billion over 10 years to provide the necessary security.

The congresswoman urged a House Transportation subcommittee to approve her legislation that would provide $800 million a year for five years in grants to help the ports provide the security improvements required by the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002.

That sum is a small part of the $16 billion a year in customs duties collected at the nation's 361 sea and river ports, she said.

"If we are going to seriously address port security, we need a partnership," Millender-McDonald said.

Her bill and a similar port-security funding bill authored by Rep. Doug Ose, R-Sacramento, were supported by Cunningham and Michael Mitre, a longshore union security official at the Port of Los Angeles.

In his testimony to the subcommittee, Mitre cited the March 14 incident in which terrorists used a shipping container to slip into an Israeli port and kill 10 dockworkers as an example of the threat presented by the 6 million containers that enter U.S. ports annually.

But he also noted an accidental explosion April 28 at the Port of Los Angeles of a container that held 900 bottles of LPG gas and a small truck with a leaking fuel tank that entered the port with a false label as general cargo. That container was being prepared for shipping out of the port, which allowed it to escape the security provided for incoming containers, Mitre said.

He urged Congress to order the Coast Guard to increase its scrutiny of out-bound containers, which now receive almost no screening.

"Port security equates to worker safety," Mitre said. "In the event of a terrorist incident, the dockworker is the first one who is going to be killed or injured."

Rep. Bob Filner, D-San Diego, pressed Coast Guard Rear Adm. Larry Hereth, director of port security, over whether the Coast Guard listens to the dockworkers, such as Mitre, in developing its security plans. Filner also asked Hereth whether the Coast Guard intends to provide greater security for the supposedly empty containers, noting tens of thousands of them pass through California ports annually.

Hereth insisted that the Coast Guard consults "labor and management" in its work and said it was looking at ways to improve security of the out-bound containers.

Hereth testified that the Coast Guard is struggling to comply with the provision of the 2002 act that requires it to review the security arrangements for all the foreign ports shipping goods to the United States and the thousands of individual facilities at the 361 domestic ports.