TCS Daily

Ports in the Storm

By Melana Zyla Vickers - July 8, 2004 12:00 AM

In the last six days, the U.S. government has shut down or restricted 20 port facilities in the country for security violations under the counterterrorism-motivated Maritime Transportation Security Act.

The trouble is, it won't tell the public which ports those are. They could be any among the 3,200 U.S. port facilities potentially threatened by terrorists -- ranging from the commercial Port of Boston to cruise ship terminals in Miami to oil transfer terminals along the Mississippi -- and covered under the security act. The 20 that have so far been closed or restricted have somehow violated the terms of the act, which came into effect July 1. It governs the monitoring and handling of dangerous international cargo such as oil and petrochemicals, as well as the comings and goings of ship's crew and passengers in a port facility, among other things.

Not telling the public which facilities have been closed is a ham-handed move by the coastguard, because Americans living or working near the facilities -- or being turned away from the closed facilities -- are sure to notice that something is amiss. Far better for members of the public to understand what the problem is and to add pressure on their local facility to get its act together, than to worry or panic in ignorance about what is truly wrong.

There's no shortage of worries to fire the imagination: In recent months, Americans have learned about terrorist threats to facilities that store liquid natural gas around the time of the 9/11 attacks, and the risk that terrorists might use an oil or gas tanker the same way they used planes on 9/11, driving them into a highly populated target and causing a catastrophic explosion. (I'm in the process of finishing a novel on precisely this topic. It's called The Strait.)

Why does the coast guard want to keep the identities of security violators secret? Possibly on the argument that shielding their identities keeps the vulnerable facilities from being targeted. But that seems an awfully thin line of defense, given that anyone -- potential victim or potential terrorist -- who happens to arrive at the facility would notice it is closed or under some sort of coast-guard penalization. Moreover, the special protection given to port-security violators seems almost inconceivable in other areas of transportation: When an airport or airline breaches security laws, Americans learn about it in the news right away.

Of course, better that the coast guard be enforcing security rules too strictly than too loosely. After all, it seems there's no shortage of violators to penalize: The coast guard has in the last week restricted 36 U.S. vessels, and barred or detained 49 foreign vessels that entered or sought to enter U.S. ports. The penalties come under the security act and its sister regulation the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code.

In other countries, enforcement has been far from strict enough. Consider that fully 29% of the world's oil, gas and petrochemical tankers are in violation of the international security code. What good is a safe port if the tanker delivering fuel to it is a security nightmare? What's worse, close to half the world's port facilities are in violation as well. At the root of the problem is the fact that compliance with the security code is purely voluntary, and the UN body that set the code up has no enforcement capabilities whatsoever.

A cursory glance at a few of the world's potential hotspots reveals the following: All of the ports in the Strait of Malacca, where half the world's oil and almost half of global trade pass annually, are in compliance with the security code. But a curiously high proportion of them were waved into compliance at the last possible moment in June, raising the question of how safe they actually are. The fine print of the international regulations says the ports don't need to implement their tighter security -- which includes stricter policing of ports and surrounding waters, as well as camera surveillance -- for several years.

Another hotspot, Iraq, has not provided public information on its compliance with the port-security rules, as other countries including neighboring Yemen, the U.S., Malaysia, Indonesia have done. Iraq's failing should be corrected ASAP. As with the details on U.S. violators, keeping secret the details of Iraq's compliance stirs more controversy than it settles.


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