Every year about 8000 vessels visit the Port of Houston. On any given day you can spot 25 to thirty oil and chemical tankers making their way along the Houston Ship Channel.
Port Executive Director Len Waterworth says that accounts for about 30 percent of the nation’s refining capacity.
“We have 52 miles of manufacturing along the Ship Channel, producing over a million jobs and close to 180 billion dollars of economic activity just in Texas. So as an old soldier, you’re always looking for security. You’re always looking to protect.”
The Houston Ship Channel Security District is charged with protecting all that activity. There’s the Port Police, along with resources from the Houston Police Department and the Harris County Sheriff’s Department. There are also multiple federal agencies.
But with the widening of the Panama Canal the port could face new security challenges.
That’s according to Congressman Michael McCaul. He represents an area that stretches from Austin to Houston. McCaul is now new chair of the House Homeland Security Committee.
“You know it wasn’t too long ago in Abbottabad, they found documents from bin Laden indicating he wanted to target oil tankers, and that puts this port at risk.”
And it’s not just threats to vessels. McCaul is worried that terrorists may use increased shipping activity as a way to get into the country.
“We don’t want Al Quada and Hezbollah coming into the United States, particularly with Iran and Israel, the conflict tension heightens. We want to keep that conflict out of the United States. There are a lot of operatives in Latin America, and so with this Panama Canal thing, we want to make sure they don’t come into the United States.”
Drug activity is also a concern. McCaul says he’s worried criminals may try to smuggle drugs aboard some of those larger ships coming through the widened canal.
“If we can stop it from where it comes from initially, when it comes into here it’s not going to be a problem. So that’s going to be a focus for us, because the threats are greater down there than they are here.”
So where does the money come from for all that protection? McCaul says he wants to restore full funding for federal security grants. Houston congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee says last fiscal year federal security grants totaled only around 96 million dollars, and that was for ports all around the country. She says they need more.
“I believe that the message should be in Washington that we should continue to fund port security grants through at-risk determination. If that is the case, then Houston and this region, and this small city that’s at the port, will be the recipient of greater funding.”
Lawmakers are also calling for Houston to get a greater share from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, which pays for dredging operations at U.S. ports.