Philadelphia-Area Guardian of the Ports Looks Back

Capt. Jonathan Sarubbi steps down Friday as the top cop on one of the toughest beats in the city - the Delaware River.

Sarubbi, head of the U.S. Coast Guard operation, came here with a post-9/11 mandate to tighten security along the 120-mile waterway and leaves at a critical juncture for the port system.

The Philadelphia region is poised to become a major center for handling tankers of a liquid form of natural gas, a hazardous cargo that some terrorism experts think is ill-suited for urban areas because of security risks.

Two companies - BP and the Philadelphia Gas Works - are moving ahead with plans to build terminals. And there is talk in local maritime circles that a third company is eyeing another site.

The arrival of liquefied natural gas tankers will intensify the security mission for the Coast Guard, the lead federal agency for securing the nation's waterways against terrorism.

The Delaware River, with its concentration of oil refineries and chemical plants, is one of the most sensitive ports in the country, Sarubbi said.

He said the waterway, stretching from the broad waters of Delaware Bay to the shallows near Trenton, is the nation's second-largest port for petrochemical imports.

"The port community here continues to be concerned about security," Sarubbi said in an interview at Coast Guard headquarters on the Delaware River in South Philadelphia.

"While we have done a lot to improve our port security, there's still much work to be done," he added.

Sarubbi, 52, is retiring from the Coast Guard. He said that, in his 26-year career, the mission of the Coast Guard had shifted dramatically. The agency is still responsible for rescuing sailors and managing disasters like oil spills, as well as helping ships and boats to navigate waterways.

But since Sept. 11, 2001, the job of securing waterways against the threat of terrorism has eclipsed all others, Sarubbi said.

In a sign of the times, the two most recent riverwide drills using emergency responders from federal, state and local agencies both involved terrorism scenarios.

Last year, Sarubbi ran an exercise involving an oil spill exacerbated by a terrorist threat. And last month, he oversaw another drill, built around sabotage using radioactive material hidden in a container.

Homeland-security experts have warned that terrorists could try to strike maritime targets as a way of damaging the U.S. economy. They explain that terrorist groups have attacked ships in other parts of the world, including a French oil tanker.

Sarubbi said that last fall, during the Athos I oil spill, he had to consider the possibility that the damage to the tanker was intentional.

He said as soon as divers were able to bring back images of the ship's damaged hull, the Coast Guard sent a tape to the FBI lab in Philadelphia. FBI experts quickly concluded that the gashes were not caused by bombs.

"In this this day and age, we do not rule out terrorism," Sarubbi said.

The building of liquefied natural gas terminals along the Delaware River is controversial because of the sensitivity of the material.

Liquefied natural gas is natural gas chilled to minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit. While it is not explosive, when the liquid is exposed to air, it vaporizes into a white cloud that could ignite into a massive fire.

Sarubbi's replacement, Capt. David Scott, is well-positioned to steer the liquefied natural gas issue. In his current job at the Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, Scott, 50, has been the agency's point man on safety and security issues surrounding liquefied natural gas terminals and tankers.

Currently, only four ports in the United States handle liquefied natural gas imports, mostly from Trinidad. But interest in liquefied natural gas is growing as energy companies scramble to meet a projected increase in natural gas demand.

Scott, who was unavailable for an interview, does not take over his duties as captain of the Philadelphia port until Friday. But in testimony last February before the Senate energy and natural resources committee, he said the Coast Guard had established special security precautions for liquefied natural gas tankers.

Since 9/11, Coast Guard officers board liquefied natural gas tankers at sea to escort them to terminals and ensure "positive control," Scott testified.

He added, however, that with projects for new terminals, companies will have to state the extent of Coast Guard, federal, state and local resources that will be necessary to ensure the safe passage of tankers. Sponsors, too, will have to ensure that there are sufficient resources for handling an accident.

"The issue of constructing new shoreside LNG terminals has been controversial, due in large part to public concerns over the safety and security of LNG vessel operations," Scott said.

He explained that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission exercises authority over the siting of liquefied natural gas terminals, but the Coast Guard weighs in on whether a waterway is suitable for liquefied natural gas vessels.

Sarubbi would not speculate on whether the Delaware River was a suitable waterway for liquefied natural gas traffic.

But given all the interest in building liquefied natural gas terminals on the Delaware, the question will have to be answered under Scott.