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SECURITY - Portland port involved in international dispute

The company that conducts stevedoring operations in Portland Harbor - loading and unloading container ships - is embroiled in an international dispute over whether a company that is owned by the government of the United Arab Emirates should be allowed to buy the firm, P&O Ports, headquartered in London.

Senator Susan Collins, chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, issued a press release Tuesday touting a letter she sent to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Treasury Secretary John Snow, calling for increased scrutiny over the deal, in which Dubai Ports World would purchase P&O Ports for a reported $6.8 billion.

At issue is whether the government of the United Arab Emirates - a country Collins calls "a base for terrorism financing and operations" - should oversee the main means by which goods enter the United States. The problem is made worse because the Bush Administration has spent relatively little money beefing up port security.

On the upside, Portland folks seem unconcerned. While P&O's PR firm wasn't taking calls from the media today, saying they are "a small firm" that's "swamped," Jack Humeniuk, P&O Ports' operations chief in Portland, said he would talk as a representative of the International Longshoremen's Association, the union that handles cargo in Portland.

In Portland, he said, P&O has a "small operation," and is not responsible for port security or terminal security. Its employees work at the International Marine Terminal, handling cargo, and the Portland Ocean Terminal, serving cruise ships. The company has a security plan for its employees and the areas it controls, but the city and the Coast Guard are ultimately in charge, Humeniuk said.

"I don't expect that much would change," he said, if Dubai Ports World took over. On average, the port of Portland handles between 3000 and 4000 20-foot-container-equivalents each year, about half inbound and half outbound. The containers can weigh anywhere between 8000 and 55,000 pounds, he said.

All of the cargo from here goes through Halifax, Nova Scotia, on its way in and out, he said. That is where the big seagoing freighters load and unload, and a "feeder ship" travels between Halifax and Portland with the local freight.

He said P&O Group has been seeking to sell off its Princess Cruise Lines, P&O Ferries, P&O Nedlloyd, and P&O Ports and just become a holding company, for business reasons.

Capt. Jeff Monroe, the director of Portland's department of transportation and waterfront, confirmed that the city is not concerned about the sale of P&O Ports from a local point of view. The company is under contract with Hapag-Lloyd to handle freight.

Monroe said the city is ultimately responsible for security, and will enforce the same rules not matter who owns or manages the ships or terminals.

US Coast Guard Lieutenant Connie Braesch, a spokeswoman for the Coast Guard unit overseeing Portland Harbor, said the Coast Guard will also enforce all federal shipping-safety laws, no matter what company owns the equipment or pays cargo-handling staff.

Monroe said, however, that the federal government should be clear on what's happening, and should investigate if there are questions about a business deal that might affect security.

Monroe, who has testified before Congress on port-security issues, said port security is "a lot better than it was five years ago," with a better working relationship between federal, state, and local agencies, but remains "a work in progress."

While he said the containers coming into Portland have typically been screened twice - going into and coming out of Halifax - he admitted there is not any equipment to remotely screen the contents of a container here in Portland.

"If there is a suspect container, they'll unpack it," he said.

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