Rocks, Shoals, Obstructions, and the SAFE Port Act

by Joseph DiRenzo III and Christopher Doane

The SAFE Port Act – officially called the Security and Accountability For Every Port Act, which was enacted by the U.S. Congress in 2006 – addresses a broad spectrum of port-security matters that had not been adequately covered by previous laws, including the Maritime Transportation Act of 2002.  One aspect of special emphasis in the SAFE Port Act is its focus on the recovery process following a terrorist incident. The ability to “recover” – i.e., to restore “normal trade” as rapidly as possible – is of national as well as both local and regional significance.  Much has been written about the importance of maritime commerce not only to the U.S. economy but also to the economy of all other nations, thanks primarily to the huge and still rapidly growing volume of international trade goods carried by ships and barges.  What makes the sustainment of normal maritime trade between nations all the more critical is the “just-in-time” model, and working principle, of modern commerce.  Today, most albeit not all businesses no longer maintain large inventories of the materials they need to sustain their daily operations. For one thing, the added transportation and warehousing costs related to maintaining huge stockpiles of most commercial commodities are too expensive.  Instead, to keep operating, most companies depend upon getting the materials they need just as close as possible to the time those materials – whether they be new cars or ladies dresses or cans of baked beans – are actually transferred to a customer. Lockouts and Other Costly Disruptions The just-in-time model works very well for most companies most of the time. However, any disruption in the supply chain that lasts more than a few days can cause those same businesses to shut down, workers to be laid off, and prices to rise.  To appreciate the potential impact, one has only to consider the lockout of dockworkers along the West Coast of the United States in 2002 that closed seaports up and down that coast and cost the U.S. economy an estimated $2 billion per day. Clearly, if either a natural event such as an earthquake or a hurricane or a “manmade” event (the polite name for a terrorist attack) disrupts maritime trade, it The ability to “recover” – i.e., to restore “normal trade” as rapidly as possible – is of national as well as both local and regional significance is essential, for political as well as economic reasons, that the flow of maritime commerce be restored as quickly as possible.  The SAFE Port Act establishes the requirements for ensuring that a rapid response is in fact possible.  The Act does this in two ways: (1) It requires that a Salvage Response Plan be included in the Area Maritime Transportation Security Plans required by the Maritime Transportation Security Act; and (2) it requires that protocols be developed and in place for the resumption of trade in the event that a transportation disruption does in fact occur. Several federal agencies have been assigned major roles in ensuring that U.S. ports and navigable waterways are kept as fully operational as possible throughout the year.  The U.S. Coast Guard has an overarching responsibility for safe navigation and port operations.  The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has primary responsibility for maintaining the navigability of U.S. waterways.  And the U.S. Navy, through its supervisor of salvage and diving, possesses much of the capability and expertise needed for conducting marine-salvage operations.  However, the nation’s greatest marine-salvage capability and expertise resides in the private sector and is represented principally by the American Salvage Association.  Close Cooperation = Clear Channels Should a navigable waterway become obstructed by a sunken vessel, a collapsed bridge, or for any other reason, the recovery process will be carried out by a partnership of federal and private-sector forces, working in close cooperation with various state and local agencies, in a unified effort to attack the problem.  However, to ensure that these entities are in fact able to join forces both rapidly and effectively requires not only joint planning but also joint training.  For that reason, the Salvage Response Plans required by the SAFE Port Act are required to establish the specifics of how salvage operations will be incorporated into the local incident command system – not only for a situation in which the salvage operation is the only task but also for situations in which the salvage operation is just one component of a much more complex response. Clearing an obstructed channel, however, is only the first step in restoring maritime commerce.  While salvage operations are ongoing, a queue of cargo ships that cannot be rerouted to another port and are waiting in line to transit the obstructed channel is building up rapidly.  Once the channel is opened – usually with some initial added complications, such as limiting passage to only one vessel at a time – decisions must be made regarding the order of priority in which ships will be allowed to transit.  In this area, the SAFE Port Act looks to the U.S. Coast Guard, working hand in glove with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, to coordinate the complex decision-making process required with the myriad of stakeholders involved. No matter what the cause, restoring the flow of maritime commerce following a disruption, whether manmade or the result of a natural disaster, is an essential prerequisite for the maintaining of the vibrant U.S. economy.  The SAFE Port Actentifies the agencies responsible for specific steps in a very complicated process, and establishes the legal mandate needed to create and maintain a rapid-response capability.  To complete the process and ensure success, those same agencies must carry out the necessary planning and training at the national, regional, and local levels of government and with the private sector.

_____________________________________ Dr. Joseph DiRenzo III (pictured) and Christopher Doane are retired Coast Guard officers and visiting Senior Fellows at the Joint Forces Staff College and have written extensively on port and maritime security issues. Both are also mentors at Northcentral University in Prescott, Arizona. The views expressed here are those of the authors and are not to be construed as official policy and/or as reflecting the views of the Commandant or of the U.S. Coast Guard.