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US Ports Worry About Potential Cuts To Security Funding
Kinghood International Logistics Inc | Updated: Mar 22, 2017

WASHINGTON — Amid concerns that the White House may pressure Congress to slash port security funding, US lawmakers and port officials are rallying to preserve the grant programs aimed at preventing an attack that would roil shippers’ containerized supply chains.

  “If we get a cut of what they are talking about, it’s going to be devastating,” Rep. Albio Sires, D-NJ, said Thursday at a House Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management hearing. “A small attack could paralyze the commerce of those ports.”

  The US government’s and the larger international response to the threat of physical and cyberattacks on maritime gateways and the $6 billion worth of goods they handle every day have been found lacking by industry insiders and analysts. That began to change under the Obama administration, but now industry insiders are concerned Trump administration cuts could reverse that.

  After talk swirled that President Donald Trump’s first budget proposal would include a 40 percent cut to the $80 million allotted for Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA's) Port Security Grant program, the so-called “skinny budget” that emerged Thursday morning made no reference to the program. In fact, the proposal on the table does not reference the word “port” once.

  But, at a mere 53 pages, just four tables, and bullet points in lieu of spreadsheets, the budget proposal as a whole has little meat on its bones and has left many in Washington hungry for the more detailed request expected to be released in May. It’s only spurred more speculation as to what that proposal will have in store for the nation’s ports.

  “We’re not sure of the anticipated cut to the Port Security Grant Program, but it may not be as high as 40 percent. Specific details haven’t been released, but we’re hopeful the cut will be less than that,” Aaron Ellis, spokesman for the American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA), told Thursday.

  The AAPA, the nation’s largest port lobby, has said it would like to see, at a minimum, funding for the program at $100 million — although even this suggestion is 75 percent lower than the $400 million called for in past authorizations.

  Before Thursday, Politico released details from internal budget documents, including the rumored 40 percent cut to the Port Security Grant Program that it juxtaposed against major increases to the Department of Homeland Security agencies to hire more border agents and immigration officers and construct a physical barrier along the US-Mexico border.

  “A 40 percent cut to the Port Security Grant Program would have a devastating and cascading impact on our security, supply chain, and safety of our communities,” said Joe Lawless, maritime security director for the Massachusetts Port Authority, speaking on behalf of the AAPA at Thursday’s hearing.

  Under the Security and Accountability for Every Port Act, the grant program was authorized at $400 million. Since then, the funding for the program has decreased, currently standing at what Lawless called “a dangerously low level of $100 million.”

  Lawless highlighted a number of achievements that the grants have helped ports accomplish, including the installation of radar intrusion detection systems, cameras, biometric access control and identification systems, active shooter detection systems, and cybersecurity assessment tools at his home port of Boston.

  At the Port of Los Angeles, port security grant funding has gone toward the installation of more than 400 cameras and 250 access control panels including infrared capable of viewing objects three miles from the port entry, as well as the construction of a cybersecurity operations center to monitor and respond to over 550,000 monthly internet attacks on the port’s business network. 

“Security challenges are never stagnant. Cybersecurity is a prime example of an emerging security threat since 9/11,” Lawless told lawmakers. “And the Port Security Grant Program remains vital in assisting ports in addressing cybersecurity challenges by providing resources for cyber assessments.”

  If Congress were to make tweaks to the FEMA Port Security Grant Program, Lawless proposed increases, not decreases to the programs funding: increase the $1 million project limit to $5,000,000 per project; introduce a 36-month grant performance period; reduce or eliminate the 25 percent cost match required for government entities such as port authorities, police departments, and fire agencies; and do not block grants or consolidate the program.

  “FEMA has done an excellent job administering this program. Port Security Grants are managed quite differently than other homeland security grants. Priorities are set locally, based on the risks and vulnerability of the local port area,” Lawless said. “There is no such list of core capabilities for port security grants, and the ones developed for other grant programs were not developed with ports in mind.”

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