AnalysisProtecting ports is a complicated task

Published 2 March 2006

The debate generated by the administration’s approval of a deal which would hand over operations, including security operations, in twenty-one U.S. ports to a Dubai-based company, has helped focus attention on the issue of port security. Port security, though, is a broader and more complicated issue than the question of management operations.

There are four reasons for this. First, seaports are different from airports. Airports are structures with well-defined perimeters controlled by a single entity and single national standard. U.S. ports, on the other hand, are vast, sprawling facilities typically located in the heart of major population centers, accessible by rail, highway, and water. Seaports are often located near other critical infrastructure facilities such as oil refineries or chemical plants. A terrorist attack on a port could have major secondary effects and mass casualties, to say nothing of the disruptive effect on the U.S. economy (95 percent of foreign-produced American consumer goods pass through seaports, as does 100 percent of foreign oil).

Second, the volume of traffic in these ports is very large. More then nine million freight containers arrive in U.S. ports every year, and the number is growing.

Third, the 361 U.S. ports are governed and policed by a complicated combination of local, state, and national authorities. Much of the responsibility for daily security is under the control of commercial users and leasers of the ports. The United States Coast Guard estimates it will cost some $5.6 billion to secure American ports, but most of that cost is borne by the businesses who use the ports, and many, if not most of them, are not American-owned companies.

Fourth, the inspection and imaging technology currently used in the ports is not fail-proof, leading both to many false alarms and many misses. In addition, since the current technology is not fast enough, only a small fraction of cargo containers are screened. DHS and its agencies are doing their best: Federal agencies have non-intrusive inspection equipment to inspect containers for radioactive or nuclear material in U.S. ports. For example, there are more than 140 radiation portal monitor systems in the ports of New York/New Jersey and the ports of Los Angeles/Long Beach and abroad, through the Department of Energy’s overseas initiative.

As of January 2006 there were 59 imaging systems that can look into containers like an X-ray deployed in ports, but they are very slow, able to check only 20 containers an hour. There are also 143 radiation portal monitors allowing containers to move through tem as cars in a car wash would do, and 3,500 hand-held radiation detectors. These have been distributed among the 361 American seaports, but most of them are being used in large ports. The reason: More than half of the cargo coming into the United States passes through a handful of ports, primarily New York/New Jersey, Los Angeles, Long Beach, Baltimore, and Miami.

-read more in Pamela Hess’s UPI report