As part of a dramatic boost in surveillance of the Canadian border, federal officials Friday dedicated the first of five planned bases for regular flights to look for drug runners and others crossing illegally by air or land.
The Bellingham Air and Marine Branch is to have a staff of nearly 70, two helicopters, an airplane and a high-speed boat by year's end. Similar bases have policed the Mexican border for three decades, but the new facility is the first on the Canadian border.
The five new bases, which will dot the border from Washington state to Upstate New York, are a response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as well as smuggling of illegal immigrants and drugs, including British Columbia's potent strains of marijuana.
"Smuggling is a two-way street," said Michael Milne, spokesman for the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, part of the Department of Homeland Security. "We've got cocaine and money going north, B.C. bud and human smuggling coming south."
A second station in Plattsburgh, N.Y., is scheduled by the end of the year, Milne said, followed by bases near Detroit; Grand Forks, N.D.; and Great Falls, Mont.
The Bellingham base initially will have only enough money to operate flights about eight hours a day.
"Our greatest asset right now is they don't know when we're going to be operating," said Mitch Pribble, a pilot and associate field director for the office.
The aircraft will allow agents to track suspicious flights when the pilot does not report to customs or talk on the radio. Federal pilots will follow such aircraft or direct agents on the ground.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said Congress earmarked $35.2 million in the current fiscal year to get the Bellingham station up and running.
"I feel like the northern border is finally getting its due," Murray said.