Local News

N.C. Ports Face Challenges Trying To Balance Security, Efficiency

Posted May 4, 2006 7:46 a.m. EDT

— Massive ocean vessels from all over the world dock at the Wilmington Port each and every day -- most stacked with thousands of metal containers.

Each is supposed to be filled with foreign commercial goods, such as frozen poultry, furniture and clothing. But because of the sheer volume of containers received each day, the port must go on educated faith that the containers coming into North Carolina do not hold a security threat.

Ports are the most vulnerable link for Homeland Security. By most international estimates, only about 5 percent of shipped goods are actually inspected.

Red flags were raised after the Bush administration, this year, floated a plan to have a foreign-owned company run six U.S. ports. That plan was put on hold, and U.S. legislators are currently working to pass measures to tighten security at ports.

Still, the efforts pose the question for North Carolinians: how secure are the state's two ports -- one in Wilmington and the other in Morehead City?

North Carolina Ports Authority Security Chief Doug Campen said it is a delicate balancing act -- speeding the flow of imports and exports, yet providing adequate safety filters.

"It's real amazing how far we've come and what we've done," Campen said.

Since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, state ports promote a tighter collaboration than ever before with the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Customs.

"Ninety-six hours before ships ever come into the ports of the United States, the shipping agents have to provide a listing of cargoes, the crew (and) any passengers," said Coast Guard spokesman Byron Black.

Preventing terrorism and weapons of mass effect from entering the ports are the primary mission, customs agents said.

With limited resources, the Coast Guard and Customs agents must rely on random searches, X-ray and radiological screening, target intelligence and, according to customs agent Paul Eney, common sense.

"Things coming from the Middle East are going to get a lot more scrutiny than something coming from France," Eney said.

But it is not just terrorism threats that port authorities monitor. A container full of duck feathers from China was recently seized because of the concern over bird flu.

"We've found everything ranging from some minor drug violations to illegal weapons, illegal workers," Black said.

The Ports Authority is almost finished with an $8 million security upgrade. Changes include new perimeter fencing, security cameras, lighting and an identity database that will dictate clearance for every public and private port worker. Port police are also better trained.

"I think we need to keep our alert level up and continue to send that message out to the public," Campen said.

Still, U.S. ports, including North Carolina's -- remain a primary link to foreign countries.

Tracking who and what comes into North Carolina remains a calculated guessing game.