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Head of House panel talks security at Houston port

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HOUSTON (AP) — The Port of Houston will need increased funding to ward off the threat of drug trafficking and terrorism as it prepares for an influx of ship traffic after the Panama Canal expansion is completed next year, a bipartisan congressional delegation said Wednesday.

After meeting with top port officials and getting a look at the helicopters, boats and vessels used to protect the 52-mile port, Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said he would fight to reinstate about $16 million in security grant funding that was cut amid the recession.

"As they widen the Panama Canal, it brings great opportunity, but also great threats," the Republican said.

The port, one of the busiest in the United States, is lined with about 150 facilities and is home to the largest petrochemical complex in the United States. In tonnage, it is the largest importer and exporter in the nation — numbers that are expected to increase as new technologies allow companies to extract gas and oil from once out-of-reach rock formations.

The expansion of the Panama Canal will also allow larger ships to travel more directly from Asia to U.S. shores. The Army Corps of Engineers believes $70 million is needed to further dredge the Houston Ship Channel so the larger vessels can safely navigate the Gulf of Mexico waterway.

McCaul and other congressional leaders said too much of the $250 million in federal funds available for maintaining the nation's ports goes elsewhere. He said he would work to ensure the money gets back to the port so it can be ready to welcome ships coming through the Panama Canal.

"These are some of the same issues I heard about 18 years ago," GOP Rep. Steve Stockman said at the end of the meeting between Texas Republican and Democratic U.S. House members and port officials.

Security, though, is the top priority. McCaul said he visited Panama and is concerned about the drug smuggling activity in that area.

He said the United States will work with the Panamanians to try to ensure the drugs do not get out of Latin America, but that the Port of Houston also needs to be prepared to find any drugs smuggled on the vessels. Equally important, he said, is the threat of al-Qaida or Hezbollah activists sneaking into the United States on these ships.

"This is a gateway ... into the United States," McCaul said.

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Plushnick-Masti can be followed on Twitter https://twitter.com/RamitMastiAP

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