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U.S. Lawmakers Get Look at Port Security

House members cite challenges at the sprawling complex that handles 40% of nation's shipping. Local officials call for more funding.

June 22, 2003|David Pierson | Times Staff Writer

Members of Congress charged with bolstering homeland security got a firsthand glimpse Saturday of the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports and said they were struck by the size of the sprawling complex and the security challenges it presents.

Six representatives of the 50-member House Select Committee on Homeland Security boarded U.S. Coast Guard ships and law enforcement helicopters to view the 15,000 acres of land and sea that serves as the conduit for 40% of the nation's shipping.

"Each of us could not help but be struck by the enormous challenge ahead of us," said Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach), chairman of the committee.

Local U.S. Coast Guard, Customs and Port Police officials called for more funding to inspect the quarter of a million containers that arrive at the two ports each month. Approximately 6% to 8% of all containers are checked using X-ray equipment that can detect nuclear or biological weapons. They said more inspectors and new equipment that can detect whether containers have been opened during shipment are needed.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday June 24, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Port tour -- A story in Sunday's California section about members of Congress visiting the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles omitted the name of Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R-Wash.), vice chair of the Homeland Security Select Committee.

Kenneth A. Price, a senior Customs and Border Protection inspector, said that local staffing in his agency has not kept up with the increasing amount of container traffic.

"Funding and personnel levels simply have not kept up," Price told the panel, adding that more resources are needed to prevent terrorism as well as the illegal drug trade.

Earlier this month, harbor security was told that the federal government would provide $27 million in grants to help buy new patrol boats, improve surveillance equipment and build command centers. The ports have also benefited from the federal Operation Safe Commerce, which requires ships to report their cargo to authorities before they enter the United States, said Vera Adams, interim director of the two ports. Prior to this month's grant, the harbor had received only $4 million from Washington and had been asking for $50 million, said Chief Noel Cunningham of the Los Angeles Port Police.

Future congressional funding may rely heavily on a study being conducted by Sandia National Laboratories, hired by harbor authorities to assess the complex's needs. Those findings are expected to be released in two weeks.

Security at the ports is said to be a far cry from the state it was in before Sept. 11, 2001, said Capt. John Holmes of the local U.S Coast Guard region.

"In the past, what drove any physical security was trespassing and pilferage," said Holmes. "We had no fencing in some facilities.... What we've done now is changed the culture."

In addition to Cox, the members of the congressional committee who attended Saturday's events were Jane Harman (D-Venice), Loretta Sanchez (D-Anaheim), John Shadegg (R-Ariz.), Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas) and Donna Christensen (D-Virgin Islands).

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