By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 9, 2006
BALTIMORE -- The company embroiled in a seaport security controversy over its purchase by a Dubai-owned firm launched a campaign yesterday to defend the deal, saying Arab ownership of the company won't have any impact on the safety of ports where it operates.
Standing in front of the bustling Seagirt Marine Terminal that they operate, officials from the company, P&O Ports, said they were beginning a public relations blitz to show that the takeover, by state-owned Dubai Ports World, would have no effect on its workforce or its daily operations.
"The same folks that work here today will be working here tomorrow," said Mark Montgomery, senior vice president of East Coast operations. He pointed out that only four of the company's 65 employees at the Port of Baltimore are not U.S. citizens.
The event, which company officials described as the first in a series they plan in ports across the country, came as lawmakers in Washington and Maryland increased their calls to kill the deal.
Critics say the acquisition poses a threat to national security. The U.S. House of Representatives is scheduled to vote on a measure next week that could thwart the purchase of P&O, which operates in ports in New York, New Jersey, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Miami and New Orleans.
"This is not a smart move from the standpoint of security," Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, said in an interview. "It's foolish to turn over those vulnerable [port] operations to any foreign government."
Officials from P&O, which traces its roots in Baltimore to 1921, said they have a small impact on overall port security. In Baltimore, the company is responsible for operating two terminals -- by moving cargo on and off rail cars -- and for stevedoring, which means overseeing the loading and unloading of ships.
The company said it has no access to official security plans that are kept by the Coast Guard. And though it delivers containers to be X-rayed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, P&O never opens them.
"We do not even know what's in the containers," Montgomery said.
Robert Scavone, P&O's executive vice president of security, said the company did not respond vigorously to some of the initial concerns about the deal because they seemed so off-base that officials doubted they would gain traction.
"We were probably a little naive about the way American politics works," Montgomery said.
Also yesterday, the O'Malley administration stepped up its efforts to block the deal. City Solicitor Ralph S. Tyler sent a letter to the Maryland Port Administration calling on it to prohibit "the assignment to Dubai World of any of the rights that MPA has granted to P&O under any effective contract, lease, or agreement." The letter said such changes must be approved by the port administration and the state Board of Public Works.
"Our country has failed miserably to deal with our ports," O'Malley said, "and we are only compounding that problem by turning over the operations of our ports to a foreign government."