Officials Call for Tighter Security at L.A. and Long Beach Harbors
Fearing that terrorism could target the nation’s busiest port complex, federal and local officials on Monday called for new security measures, such as intensified searches of cargo ships and trucks, at the harbors in Los Angeles and Long Beach.
The public forum convened by U.S. Rep. Jane Harman (D-Redondo Beach) also listened to port-area residents fret about the potential environmental and health consequences of any assault on the many fuel and chemical storage facilities at the port.
Among them was San Pedro resident and activist Janet Gunter.
“Port and city officials have been deficient in making people aware of the materials located at the terminals, the risks they pose or how to respond in the event of an emergency,” she said. “There isn’t even an evacuation plan in place. Yet, we are on a peninsula with only three roads out of town.”
A terrorist attack at the port could also pose a threat to the entire nation, according to Harman, who is a member of the House subcommittee on terrorism and homeland security.
In a letter sent to President Bush two days after the Sept. 11 attacks, Harman requested federal assistance in conducting a security assessment at the adjacent ports, which together handle about 5,000 vessels a year ferrying cargo valued at more than $190 billion.
She urged the deployment of additional U.S. Customs and Coast Guard officers and equipment to inspect cargo ships and oil tankers, and conduct background checks on crews.
“Terrorist attacks are asymmetrical and unpredictable,” she said. “We have no time to waste in making this a totally safe facility.”
Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who represents the port communities of San Pedro and Wilmington, announced she will introduce today a motion urging that the city’s emergency preparedness, police and fire departments and related agencies work with port authorities to develop a comprehensive response to emergencies.
Of particular concern, she said, are the thousands of trucks owned by mostly independent drivers who haul nearly 5 million containers a year from the harbor to train yards 20 miles to the north and retail outlets across the country.
“There are no comprehensive security measures in place with regard to checking the contents of those containers, or the identification of the drivers,” she said. “It’s a big hole in the system, and it’s right here on the docks.”
On another front, Hahn said she will urge port authorities to begin drawing plans for relocating liquid fuels and hazardous chemicals “as far away from surrounding communities as possible.”
“The port has been reluctant to even talk about such things in the past,” she said. “But now these issues are at the forefront. What was once a local annoyance has become a national security issue.”
In an interview, Bruce Seton, chief operating officer at the port, insisted that the port facilities are “safe as can be.”
“I’m not saying we can’t do better,” he said. “But the process should be well thought out, and not knee-jerk.”
In any case, “it would take a decade, maybe longer, to dismantle potential terrorist targets, clean up the premises and move them someplace else.”
“Where’s the new land for them supposed to be built? Outside the breakwater?” he asked. “There’s some major challenges there.”
After the forum, Harman and Hahn boarded a 41-foot U.S. Coast Guard cutter for an hourlong tour of the harbor, and a mock inspection of a cargo container vessel.
Plying past a dozen terminals handling such hazardous liquids as crude oil and gasoline, Coast Guard Capt. J.M. Holmes described the Coast Guard’s increased presence in the port since Sept. 11.
The agency is conducting 24-hour patrols of the waterfront, and its boats escort all large passenger cruise ships and tankers to dock. Multi-agency teams, including immigration officers and sometimes FBI agents, are boarding ships and conducting background checks on their crews.
“A month ago, you might have seen one Coast Guard vessel on a given day,” he said. “This evening, you’ll see at least six Coast Guard boats out on patrol.”
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