NBC News and news services
updated 12/31/2003 6:52:12 PM ET 2003-12-31T23:52:12

Oil tankers began moving out to sea Wednesday away from the port at Valdez, Alaska, as a precaution against a potential terrorist threat, Coast Guard officials told NBC News.

Other hazardous cargo, such as liquefied natural gas, has been kept at a distance from other domestic ports since the Bush administration raised the nation’s terrorism threat assessment last week to “orange,” or high.

Officials stressed that the tankers were moved away from Valdez as a precaution, not as the result of a specific threat. Valdez, the site of the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline Terminal, has been mentioned in intercepted communications between suspected terrorists picked up by U.S. intelligence in the past two weeks, the officials said.

About a million barrels of crude oil flow through the pipeline each day, about 17 percent of U.S. domestic oil production.

Terrorist response deadline unmet
The tankers began moving away from shore as more than 5,000 ships and less than a fourth of the nation’s ports, ferry terminals and fuel-chemical tank farms failed to meet the deadline to submit maritime security plans showing how they would deal with terrorism threats.

Security measures to prevent attacks from the sea have fallen far behind efforts to protect airports and airplanes since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist strikes.

Congress last year ordered the maritime shipping industry to tighten security amid fears that an attack on a seaport could kill thousands of people, cause tremendous property damage and cost tens of billions of dollars in lost revenue to the U.S. economy.

Coast Guard officials said the deadline to submit the plans was met by about 5,200 of 10,000 ships that were ordered to comply and by only 1,100 of 5,000 port facilities — despite a potential fine of $25,000.

“We do not have all the plans,” Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Carter told the Associated Press. “We recognize that despite our best efforts, there are those who won’t comply for a variety of reasons.”

Wednesday also was the deadline for airports to start screening all airline baggage electronically for explosives. But Deputy Homeland Security Secretary James Loy told Congress two months ago that the deadline would not be met at five airports.

“A handful” of airports still do not have the screening equipment installed, said Darrin Kayer, a spokesman for the Transportation Security Administration.

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, Congress required the electronic screeners to be in place a year ago. But when it became clear that it could not be met, lawmakers moved the deadline back a year.

Attitude adjustment
One reason ships, ports and other facilities were missing their deadline is that they were given too little time, said Maureen Ellis, a spokeswoman for the Association of American Port Authorities. The government did not finalize what it wanted until Oct. 22, although the industry was told July 1 that it had six months to submit plans.

Ellis said some ports also found the regulations and requirements to be “overwhelming.” The “plan review approval form” for cruise ship terminals, for example, is 20 pages long.

The new law requires a difficult attitude adjustment, said Thomas Allegretti, president of the American Waterways Association, which represents owners and operators of tugboats and barges. It is difficult for tugboat captains, who are accustomed to worrying about running aground, to suddenly start thinking about a terrorist hijacking an oil tanker and turning it into a floating bomb, he said.

The tugboat and barge industry submitted plans to the Coast Guard that included training crews about potential threats, securing vessels’ perimeters and restricting access to vessels, Allegretti said.

Lt. Cmdr. Richard Teubner said the Coast Guard expected to get plans in the mail next week from many ports, stevedoring companies, offshore oil drillers and shipowners.

The plans have to be implemented by July 1, when the Coast Guard can start turning away ships and shutting down ports that do not comply.

James Carafano, a homeland security expert at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington policy research organization, expects that major ports will meet the July deadline. Otherwise, he said, “the economic consequences are too horrifying to contemplate.”

Confronting the cost
For others, coming up with the money for fences, guards, lights or closed-circuit TV will be difficult, Ellis said.

“It’s one thing to come up with a plan to see what you need to do, but it’s a whole other issue how it’s going to be paid for,” she said.

The General Accounting Office, Congress’ investigative arm, agrees that paying for the security upgrades will be a challenge. “Where the money will come from to meet these funding needs is not clear,” the congressional auditors said in a letter Dec. 15 to Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., ranking Democrat on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

As one example, the new regulations require more than 4,000 U.S. ships to install transponders that transmit a signal, giving port officials early warning of an unidentified vessel. But only a handful of ports have the money for installing the equipment to receive the signals, the GAO said.

The Coast Guard estimates that meeting the new requirements will cost $7.4 billion over the next decade.

NBC’s Pete Williams in Washington and Robert Windrem in New York and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments