Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said during a town hall meeting Wednesday in Havre that her department would work with people in the Port of Whitetail area to find the best way to deal with an announcement that the Canadian government plans to close its side of the port next year.
“We’re obviously not going to build a port where there is no place to port on the other side,” she said. “But we are going to work with the community first and the Canadians and work our way through this issue.
“I have always believed that once you define the problem then you can find how to fix it. This one can be fixed,” she added.
Work on an $8.5 million upgrade to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection facilities at Whitetail were halted after the Canadian government announced it would close its facilities at the port next spring.
The upgrade raised national attention last year when it was found the port, located just a short distance east of the Port of Scobey and about 25 miles east of the Port of Raymond, averaged five cars traveling through each day.
The discussion of the issue came during a town hall meeting held by Napolitano, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Alan Bersin and Montana’s U.S. Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester following touring border facilities in Montana.
Montana Rep. Julie French, D-Scobey, told Napolitano during the town hall meeting that most of the people near the port want to know why the construction was started in the first place.
“Needless to say, farmers who work very hard for their dollars are wondering about the $8-million fiasco,” she said.
French said local residents also are wondering why no one has come to check out the port and visit with the residents about how they are affected — including the five employees who work at the port.
“Now five employees may not seem like much to a lot of people, but in these little, small communities, to lose five people is big,” she said.
“Secretary, I do not want to be disrespectful but I believe that the people in my district deserve answers and and at least the respect of listening to their concerns,” French said.
“These ports of entry are vital the economy of these small communities on both sides of the border, she added.
French said the suggestions she has heard are to close the port and move the operations to the Port of Scobey, extending hours there and moving the five employees there. Another is to build the new facility and negotiate with Canada to use the facility for joint operations by both governments.
The third is to stop operations, pay off contractors who have started work on the upgrade and do what is needed with the tax dollars, she said.
Les Odegard of Havre said he grew up 10 miles from the port and still operates a farm there. People don’t want the port closed, but an $8.5 million upgrade is not needed, he said.
“We don’t need that much money at that port,” he said.
Odegard suggested that a smaller operation is done and the money be used to upgrade the Port of Wild Horse north of Havre to a 24-hour commercial operation.
He also suggested that the Whitetail port could easily be shut down during the winter months without creating a problem.
Tester said that people can use a page on his Senate website to make comments about the port, which are being shared with Homeland Security.
He said meetings will be held with the residents, but time is needed to schedule them.
“This is not something that’s been going on for a long time,” he said. It’s only been the last two or three weeks. We will go, we will listen.”
Napolitano also said meetings will happen.
“We are not going to do anything without making sure that we have had good and accurate consultation with the local community,” she said. “We know about the five employees. We also know that the ports are economic engines.”
She said if the U.S. agency had known the Canadians planned to close their side, a different decision may have been made.
“We didn’t. That happens,” Napolitano said.
She said the initial look at what can be done nearly matches the ideas French brought. All options will be looked at closely, she said.
Napolitano said she believes her department has been a good steward of the taxpayer dollars — including driving down the costs of upgrades by 25 percent since the process started.
But the upgrades have to be for the long term, she said. These upgrades will need to last 25 years to 30 years, Napolitano said.
She also said that the planned upgrades have been reviewed by independent consultants, outside of Homeland Security, and those consultants agree that the upgrades planned are needed.
Tester said that after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the idea of border security changed forever.
“The days of (closing a port with) three red cones are over,” he said. “We have to build for a worst-case scenario.
“If it’s going to be built it has to be built right,” he added. “Whether it sees one car a day or 5,000.”
(Join the Havre Daily News facebook page to keep up on local news at www.facebook.com/havedailynews.)