Port Security a Priority in Homeland Security Bill

Congress is on the verge of approving $175 million to help secure the nation's seaports over the coming year as part of appropriations for the Homeland Security Department. The plan is to focus money on the highest-risk ports, but a number of port officials think the system is unfair.

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Congress is on the verge of approving $175 million to help secure the nation's seaports over the coming year. Final approval could come as early as today or tomorrow. The Homeland Security Department wants to focus the money on the highest risk ports as part of a larger effort to make sure security funds go where they're most needed, but some port officials think the system is unfair. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER reporting:

There's little disagreement that protecting the nation's seaports is important, but past Homeland Security grants have raised questions about whether the money has always gone to the right places.

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FESSLER: Take the Martha's Vineyard Ferry, for example. The authority that runs this service received $900,000 two years ago to tighten security. Critics complain that the ferry was unlikely to be a top terrorist target, and earlier this year, the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general found that several hundred questionable projects have received port security funds. So this year, the Bush administration took a new approach.

Mr. MARK SHORT (Spokesman, Department of Homeland Security): We have to recognize that there is a finite amount of resources that the taxpayer in America can give to continue to support these types of programs. You want to allocate those resources in the best way to protect the most citizens.

FESSLER: Mark Short is a Department of Homeland Security spokesman. He says the agency identified 66 of the nation's 360 ports as facing the highest risk based in part on the impact of a potential attack.

Mr. SHORT: In other words, is the port facility located in the center of a city or is it removed from the center of the city? What sorts of cargo come in and out of that port? Are there large petrol facilities? Are there chemical facilities that if attacked would damage innocent victims around that area?

FESSLER: The administration then limited this year's grants, $142 million in all, to these high-risk ports. The Port of Houston got the largest amount, $35 million, to buy, among other things, more sophisticated video monitoring equipment. Other recipients included the ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach and Seattle, but those excluded from the program were not happy.

Mr. STEVEN SERNAK (Director, Port of Galveston): If Houston and Texas City, which is about five miles from here, are considered high-risk areas, why is Galveston not a high-risk area then? That's what puzzles me.

FESSLER: Steven Sernak is director of the Port of Galveston. His port was ineligible to apply for the security funds even though it's located at the mouth of the Houston Ship Channel and serves as a major port for cruise ships.

Mr. SERNAK: At least let us apply for them. If you tell me after I apply for this project, that it doesn't have merit, that there were other projects that had more merit, I can accept that. But to just come out of the gate, put something out there and say, `No, you're precluded from applying, you can't even apply for this,' I don't think is fair.

FESSLER: Especially, he says, because he's still required by federal law to upgrade security. The American Association of Port Authorities says many significant ports were cut out from the program this year, places such as the Port of Everett in Washington, which handles airplane parts for Boeing. Association President Kurt Nagle says by limiting which ports get the funds, the government has made other ports more vulnerable. He thinks one solution is to provide more money overall.

Mr. KURT NAGLE (President, American Association of Port Authorities): We don't want bad guys, potential terrorists, to essentially shop for a port that may not be perceived as being secure as other ports because of not having been provided any level of assistance.

FESSLER: It's an argument heard frequently from those on the loosing end of efforts to focus Homeland Security spending on high-risk areas, that those places not protected will become more attractive targets, but administration officials say the government can only fund so much. Mark Short of Homeland Security says the agency will adjust the list of eligible ports as circumstances change. Still, some lawmakers including Democratic Senator Patty Murray of Washington are unsatisfied. They're working on legislation to expand the program's eligibility once again.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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