January 18, 2022

Port dispute has Maine ties

The port firm that is targeted for purchase by a United Arab Emirates business operates in Maine, though in a limited capacity.

Dubai Ports World, a business owned by the U.A.E., is making a bid to purchase the British firm Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co., or P&O, which operates port facilities in New York, New Jersey, New Orleans, Miami, Philadelphia and Baltimore.

The move has generated controversy and has policymakers concerned because some of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers traveled to the United States from the U.A.E. and, reportedly, much of the financing for the attacks was transferred through U.A.E. banks.

Brian Nutter, executive director of the Maine Port Authority, which oversees Maine’s ports in Eastport, Searsport and Portland, said P&O handles 2,500 containers annually in Portland, but that pales in comparison to the 30 million containers the firm handles each year in ports around the world.

Concerns about the U.A.E. firm’s bid to buy P&O have centered on port security, since P&O, as operator of major U.S. ports, is charged with providing security against terrorism.

Nutter said in Maine – as in ports throughout the United States – port operators must meet U.S. Coast Guard standards for security.

“They set the standards,” he said Friday. “You adhere to the standards or they shut you down.”

U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officials are also involved in port operations, Nutter said. The new Transportation Security Administration is not heavily involved in port security, he said, instead focusing on airports.

Ports can be publicly or privately owned and operated, he said, making for complex relationships between regulators and operators.

For example, the quasi-state governmental Maine Port Authority owns the Mack Point pier in Searsport, but the facility is licensed to Sprague Energy Corp., which uses the facility to import from some 100-plus customers.

A part of the facility at Mack Point is owned by Sprague, which has offices in Portsmouth, N.H., but is itself a Swedish company. Sprague primarily imports liquid bulk fuels and chemicals used in paper mills.

In Eastport, the land on which the port facilities are located is owned by the Eastport Port Authority, a local quasi-governmental group, but is licensed to Federal Marine Terminal, a Canadian business, Nutter said.

Some of the port facilities in Portland are publicly owned, while some of those in South Portland are privately owned.

Increasingly, U.S. anti-terrorism efforts relating to shipping are being focused on foreign ports, Nutter said. Currently, federal agents inspect cargo ships as they are being loaded in 42 foreign ports. Inspectors will be working in 50 foreign ports by the end of the year, he said.

Here in the U.S., port security standards are being raised, Nutter said.

“Anybody who works in a port has to pass a background check,” he said.

Though Nutter said he could not release details about port security in Maine, he said Searsport’s terminal facilities, where 10 million barrels of petroleum products are imported annually, have some of the best defense systems.

A fence rings the area, and vehicles are stopped at a gate manned 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Ships must contact port officials four days before arriving to provide information about their cargo and crew, including providing crew members’ names, Nutter said.

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