Politics

Dock Shock

The competition for federal grants pits the security concerns of small ports against big ones and leaves all of them short of what they say they need.
by | June 2005

Seventy miles south of New Orleans--past sandy flats and low marshlands--lies Port Fourchon. Its squat buildings and workaday docks snake across spits of land that stagger their way down to the Gulf of Mexico.

Fourchon is not a well-known port, but it's strategically important. Between 16 and 18 percent of the nation's domestic oil and natural gas production is serviced through its facilities.

That means the rambling port's security is as vital to the country as that of any mega-port in the U.S. At least, that's the case Port Fourchon officials have been making as they compete for federal security grants. But they have to make it quietly. Vulnerability is not something a port likes to advertise. "It's almost like you don't want to say anything," says Jon Callais, Port Fourchon's homeland security director. "You don't want to paint a bull's-eye on yourself and let people know that the port is such a critical infrastructure.v"

Fourchon's quiet battle is part of the nationwide competition for hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grants for port security. As ports enter their fifth round of grant requests since September 11, 2001, local officials are concerned that some of the country's most important port security concerns remain unfunded or underfunded. The irony is that several ports, like Port Fourchon, may end up having to broadcast the very security gaps they're trying to fix. Many more have been getting some grant money but are being denied funds for their highest priorities.

THE BIG UNEASY

Port Fourchon may look unimportant, but that's not the case with the Port of New Orleans. The 22-mile-long Mississippi River port is a colorful jumble of brick and wood-plank warehouses interspersed with concrete-and-glass buildings. Tourists board ocean-bound cruise ships at one end, while farther upriver forklifts stack multi-hued cargo containers in col-umns 40 feet high. Four gantry cranes tower overhead--part of a $100 million automated container terminal that opened two years ago. The port handles about 2,000 vessels a year-- ships bringing everything from coffee and T-shirts to lumber and steel bars.

But the port's size and prominence haven't made security funding easy to obtain. "There have been a lot of things we have asked for that we haven't gotten," says Captain Kevin Newman, the port's assistant chief for homeland security. In particular, Newman wants money to buy a harbor patrol boat. "This place is really secure on the land side, but the water side is vulnerable," he says. Despite requests for the boat in three successive rounds of grants--and despite its relatively small price tag of $400,000--the port has yet to see any money for it.

Ninety percent of the funding in the first four rounds of grants nationwide went to fencing and lighting, Newman says. "The consensus among port officials is, 'Okay, enough of this fencing and lighting.'"

That concern is echoed by Port Fourchon's Callais, who notes the fencing is now secure, but says his port's greatest security need is an interoperable communications system. "The funding hasn't trickled down to that yet," he says.

ROUGH WATERS

It's difficult to imagine a funding system that could satisfy both the large high-risk ports and the smaller, more numerous facilities, which, like Port Fourchon, may nonetheless face significant security threats. The federal government's answer to that problem seems to be tilting toward satisfying big-port needs.

At least, that's what the major ports are hoping. Officials from the larger facilities say they've received grossly inadequate security funds over the past few years and that grants have been dispersed broadly across too many facilities. But shifting the priorities in the grant program would put the onus on places such as Port Fourchon to trumpet their vulnerability in order to compete for security money.

For New Orleans' Newman, the federal government's proposal to focus on the biggest security threats is a move in the right direction. "Those smaller places need to be protected," he says. "But in the whole scheme of things, I don't think al Qaeda is too concerned with some little inland river port."

A Department of Homeland Security report found that ports are having difficulty in spending the money once it has been awarded. By last fall, only 21 percent of all funds awarded under the Port Security Grant Program had actually been spent. The upshot is that the federal government could start training an even more focused eye on port security grant proposals.

Ports are facing possible additional changes that could muddy the funding waters even further. The Bush administration has proposed eliminating the funding earmarked for the Port Security Grant Program and folding it into a larger program that includes other methods of transportation, such as rails and buses. That means that port funding would, says Kurt Nagle, president and CEO of the American Association of Port Authorities, be rolled "into a nebulous new program that pits border security needs against domestic security programs." Given the significant congressional opposition to the grants consolidation proposal, the Port Security Grant Program probably will remain intact for now. But the proposal itself caused some officials to question how big a priority port security is for the federal government.

Regardless of how the grant money is distributed, port security officials see the funds as a drop in the ocean of their needs. The $565 million allocated by the federal government during the first four rounds of grant awards accounted for about one-sixth of the requirements identified by the ports, according to the American Association of Port Authorities. The U.S. Coast Guard has estimated that it will take $5.4 billion in industry spending over the next 10 years to secure the nation's ports.

Meanwhile, the Maritime Transportation Security Act, which was signed into law in 2002 and went into effect last July, called for massive public improvements in port security. But the federal government has not funded the measure anywhere near the level necessary for the security upgrades.

With the federal government unable or unwilling to supply their security needs, several ports have taken steps of their own. Some are opting to levy additional user fees on incoming ships, but they worry that such a move could make them less competitive with other facilities. Last year, members of the Gulf Marine Seaport Terminals Conference--including the board of the Port of New Orleans--voted to set minimum port-security fees. The conference, which is immune from antitrust laws, agreed on a new fee structure that was put in place this spring. But fee increases alone are not likely to bridge the multibillion-dollar security shortfall.

FULL STEAM AHEAD

The $565 million already granted to ports, plus an additional $150 million that will likely be appropriated for the fifth round of grants, has made at least some difference. Radiation detectors are being installed at ports across the country (although the scanners so far have been unable to differentiate between nuclear radiation and the natural radiation from items such as kitty litter and ceramic tile). The government has set the goal of scanning 100 percent of containers that enter U.S. ports by early 2006. Numerous procedural changes at ports, which are not very costly, have increased security. For instance, a harbor police officer now boards every ship that docks at the Port of New Orleans. And the landside perimeter enhancements that so far have dominated port security spending have made the facilities safer. The fencing that now surrounds the Port of New Orleans, for example, can stop a vehicle racing toward it at 60 miles per hour.

For future funding, Christopher Koch, president of the World Shipping Council, says the key to attracting federal security money is for ports to be as detailed and precise as possible in their requests. "Appeals that identify specific, unique needs or problems that justify additional targeted federal assistance would seem more likely to succeed," Koch said at the spring conference of the American Association of Port Authorities.

That leaves places such as Port Fourchon balancing the necessity to protect themselves against the dangers of highlighting just how vulnerable they are.

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