Senator Tester Hears From The People On Whitetail Port

Daniels County Leader

by Burl Bowler

US Senator Jon Tester, who serves on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and others, called for a discussion session in Scobey, Tuesday this week, September 7.

About 85 people from around the area attended the meeting which lasted just over an hour.

Tester said local input is critically important and felt the need to come to this area and bring several representing Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection.

He gave a brief statement concerning the importance of Homeland Security along the Canadian/American border.

State Senator John Brenden and State Representative Julie French each gave an opening statement. Brenden said he is a strong supporter of the ports but said that too much money is being spent on these ports and that money should be spent on roads, hospitals and putting people to work. French felt this meeting was very much needed to hear from the people directly affected. She also pointed out that concerning construction and building supplies, “local” to some means “Montana”, while around here, it means, “local” as in Daniels or Sheridan County or the immediate area involved.

Michele James, Director of Field Operations from the Seattle field office of Customs and Border Protection (CBP), also gave an opening statement and introduced several CBP agents who work at Whitetail, Scobey and Raymond. James’ area of operations covers Washington State through Minnesota.

She said the first time she was told that Big Beaver (the Canadian counterpart to the Whitetail Port) was closing was July 20th. Long after planning and construction stages had begun on port upgrades. She said the Canadian government was fully aware of the upgrades being done on the US side but did not say anything to US officials. July 20th was the day the Leader contacted both Canadian and US officials about the rumors of closing. Apparently the Canadians thought it was time to let the cat out of the bag.

James stated that the stimulus money was being used to make upgrades at the ports which was long over due, not only for security but for matters of officer safety, and lack of infrastructure and technology to do their job properly. She said five people cover the station in Whitetail, two officers on at any given time. Annually there are an average of 57 commercial trucks, 1,261 private vehicles and 2,560 passengers, which clear customs at Whitetail.

She said that since the notification of the closure of Big Beaver, CBP is gathering comments from the public, looking at the traffic numbers and the local impact of closing the Whitetail side before a decision is made.

Talks with the Canadian officials to find a solution that may work, continues.

It was brought up that the border crossings are not about security, but rather to provide service to the public. Tester argued that threats of Borderland Security are real and that “it only takes one clown to get through” that can cause harm to our country. Michele James stated that the real threat isn’t about the locals getting through it’s the “unknowns”, seeking out small ports to get through, and into the US for various reasons.

Though not many new ideas came out at the meeting, it was apparent that the general feeling was that too much money was being spent, not only at Whitetail but at other ports too.

It was asked if we get more protection for $12 million than we get for $4 million. James says that many of these port projects have been streamlined.

According to her office, port upgrade cost estimates at first were higher. After standardizing some of the specs and coming up with a “small model” port and a “smaller model” port, they were able to scale back. Contract bidding was more competitive too, because of the economy.
In addition to border security, James mentioned that the officer safety was needing to be addressed with contaminated water at Whitetail and asbestos removal.

A point coming from the crowd was that of the local Border Patrol facility in Scobey. It was built by local contractors and local ownership– for less, than going through regular government channels.

The construction moratorium has been extended until a decision about the port is made. A question about getting of the contract with the builder was brought up, should the Whitetail Port close. Should the port close hopes are to reach a reasonable and fair settlement with the contract.
One way or the other, the sooner settled the better for the taxpayers, it seems.

Senator Tester said the options of continuing construction at Whitetail and having the Big Beaver port close, causing a one-way port is not a viable answer. After gathering information and input from locals, “We need to work with the Canadians on a workable solution.”

Shortening hours at Whitetail and using the man power at Scobey and Raymond ports was discussed. Creative options are being looked at, but all cause unique problems to overcome. Shared (joint US/Canadian) ports work well said James, who oversees four such ports.

A question was that if the Whitetail Port closes what will that do to the security of the area. James stated that it would become a “green area”. An area between ports which is covered by the Border Patrol. There would be some change in security because after hours, ports have security cameras and other technology that works when the port is closed.

It was asked if they could build the facility cheaper. CBP says some paring down could be done but these new facilities are heavily technologically dependent, to do a really good inspection.

A couple of Whitetail area and Canadian farmers stated that closing Whitetail Port would cause a considerable hardship on many farmers. And, if the port was closed, incentive for maintaining the road north of Whitetail would also likely vanish.

One farmer says he has about 100 loads of hay yet to come through the Whitetail Port into the US. He pointed out that along with emergency fire services, there could be future needs that are just not here yet, such as the development of the Bakken oil formation, possible coal development. He said ‘Once we let this go, it will be hard to get it back. Let’s not give it up!”

An electrical contractor from Lewistown was at the meeting and said there are lots of decisions to be made, many which may not be popular, but “there has been considerable money already spent and that should not get plowed into the ground.” Senator Tester agreed that no matter what decisions get made there will be those who will not be happy. Some of the decisions to be made must include the consideration of “What does the future hold for tomorrow and what does the future hold for us in 20 years?” He said that they will be working with the Canadians and look forward to more local input.

People are asked to submit their feedback to Tester’s website or those who do not use the internet, contact one of his field offices. The Helena office: Sen. Jon Tester • Capital One Center • 208 N Montana Avenue, Suite 202 • Helena, MT 59601• Phone: (406) 449-5401 Fax: (406) 449-5462