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Tinderbox of a Texas Port Points to a Threat by Sea

by Joel Brinkley, The New York Times

PORT ARTHUR, Tex. -- Few seaports in the nation seem as vulnerable as this one.

It is home to more than a dozen oil refineries and related plants, each with its own pier, that process noxious, volatile chemicals. In addition, more than 200 pipelines carrying fuel and other hazardous chemicals snake under Port Arthur in every direction.

All of it makes this place a tinderbox.

Immediately after Sept. 11, local governments, federal agencies and industries strengthened security on the ground and at sea. Marc Blanton, the assistant chief of police, began noticing clusters of residents standing at the fences, staring at the huge refineries that define this small port town, whose motto used to be, "We oil the world."

"I think they were assessing the threat for themselves," Chief Blanton said.

Now, almost six months later, security is certainly more intense than it was in August. But a kind of complacency seems to have set in, even as senior officials in Washington begin to talk more urgently about the terrorist threat from the sea.

Many of the off-duty Port Arthur police officers who were hired to patrol the refineries in the fall have been sent back to the station. The two additional Coast Guard boats sent here to patrol the harbor have left.

Federal officials call port security the largest and most glaring weakness in the nation's security network. A presidential advisory commission concluded in August 2000 that "the state of security in U.S. seaports generally ranges from poor to fair, and in a few cases good."

In an interview on Thursday, Senator Bob Graham, the Florida Democrat who is chairman of the Intelligence Committee, called ports "a clear area of serious vulnerability." Senior Coast Guard officials in Washington now talk urgently about the potential for terrorists to use ships as weapons.

"Ships can be used to transport terrorists or weapons of mass destruction," Rear Adm. Terry Cross of the Coast Guard said in February. "They can be used as weapons, and they are going to try to blend in and look like regular traffic. We think it is important to publicly recognize how vulnerable seaports are."

When the refineries asked to hire the off-duty police officers last fall, "we didn't have enough people for all the requests," Chief Blanton said. Now, the refineries "have slowly backed off," he said. Many of the off- duty officers have been replaced by private unarmed security guards.

Before the morning of Sept. 11 had ended, Capt. Eric A. Nicolaus, head of the Port Arthur Coast Guard Station, requested more personnel and more boats to protect the refineries and the public ports, even though port security had been a low priority for the Coast Guard before then.

"We got two extra patrol boats," raising the total to five, Captain Nicolaus said, "and we brought in about 100 reservists."

With the extra resources, the Coast Guard began searching many ships before they docked, looking for unusual cargo or crewmen.

Now, Captain Nicolaus said his Coast Guard crews remain at a high level of alert, but the two extra patrol boats have been sent back to their regular ports. The number of ships searched has declined, but he noted that local port pilots board each inbound ship to guide it in and would most likely notice anything amiss.

In the fall, representatives of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies in the area began meeting every week to discuss security issues. Recently the meetings were cut back to every two weeks.

Three major oil refineries lie within the city's jurisdiction, and more than a dozen others line the Sabine- Neches shipping channel that flows from Beaumont, slightly less than 20 miles upstream. Some of these refineries are among the nation's largest.

Crude oil and other volatile liquids flow into the plants by ship, five tankers a day, on average, and by pipeline from Mexico and other points south.

Refined products - gasoline, diesel fuel, butane, ethylene, benzene, propane, kerosene, jet fuel and other noxious liquids - pour out, tens of thousands of gallons a day, by truck and by train but mostly by pipeline.

"We had 216 of them at last count," Leslie E. McMahon, Port Arthur's director of public works, said of the pipelines.

While all here acknowledge that a port with fixtures as explosive as this one has could be a target, many now seem little concerned.

"It's almost back to normal here," said Ronnie Hicks, technical supervisor for the Port of Port Arthur.

But in Washington, Senator Graham has taken on port security as a major concern, saying, "Any smart terrorist would have to think of this," since ports offer "the lowest risk of detection and the highest chance of success."

Security officials in speeches and interviews describe three possible ways terrorists might use ships.

One, terrorists could sink a ship in a narrow shipping lane, like the Sabine-Neches channel, closing it for days or weeks.

"It would be hard to get a ship like that up, no doubt," said John J. Durkay, general counsel for the refineries' Plant Managers' Association.

In Washington, Admiral Cross, speaking at a Defense Week seminar, said, "We think shutting down one or two major ports would do more damage to our economy than Sept. 11."

Two, terrorists might blow up a ship in an important port.

Or three, terrorists could hide an explosive weapon in one of the 600,000 cargo containers that arrive at American ports each day; fewer than 3 percent are opened and inspected.

Robert C. Bonner, commissioner of the United States Customs Service, often talks about this concern, which he calls "a nuke in a box."

"One of the most lethal terrorist scenarios is the use of oceangoing container traffic as a means to smuggle terrorists and weapons of mass destruction into the United States," Mr. Bonner said. "And it is by no means far-fetched."

Shortly after Sept. 11, the Coast Guard issued a new rule: cargo ships approaching the United States would have to relay detailed crew lists to the Coast Guard 96 hours before reaching this country. Before, they had to report 24 hours in advance.

The agency set up the National Vessel Movement Center, in Martinsburg, W. Va., whose mission is to check those names against national criminal and terrorist databases.

After a few weeks, a federal official said, many shippers began moving seamen with Middle Eastern names onto ships not bound for the United States.

In Port Arthur, the refineries quickly put up fences, installed lighting and barriers and hired the off- duty officers to patrol their grounds around the clock.

The physical security measures remain in place. The way Mr. Durkay sees it: "After Sept. 11, a lot of the things this community had been preparing for were tested and found to be sound."

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