Arab Firm Buys Major U.S. Ports

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., right, and Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., meet reporters on Capitol Hill, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2006 to call on Treasury Secretary John Snow to investigate the ownership of ports on the East Coast. On Monday, a $6.8 billion dollar deal put the operation and control of major N.Y. and N.J. ports in the control of a firm in the United Arab Emirates owned by the Government of Dubai. (AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke)
AP Photo
A company at the Port of Miami has sued to block the takeover of shipping operations there by a state-owned business in the United Arab Emirates. It is the first American courtroom effort to capsize a $6.8 billion sale already embroiled in a national debate over security risks at six major U.S. ports affected by the deal.

The Miami company, a subsidiary of Eller & Company Inc., presently is a business partner with London-based Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co., which Dubai Ports World purchased last week. In a lawsuit in Florida circuit court, the Miami subsidiary said that under the sale it will become an "involuntary partner" with Dubai's government and it may seek more than $10 million in damages.

The Miami subsidiary, Continental Stevedoring & Terminals Inc., said the sale to Dubai was prohibited under its partnership agreement with the British firm and "may endanger the national security of the United States." It asked a judge to block the takeover and said it does not believe the company, Florida or the U.S. government can ensure Dubai Ports World's compliance with American security rules.

A spokesman for Peninsular and Oriental indicated the company had not yet seen the lawsuit and declined to comment immediately.

The lawsuit represents the earliest skirmish over lucrative contracts among the six major American ports where Peninsular and Oriental runs major commercial operations: New York, New Jersey, Baltimore, New Orleans, Miami and Philadelphia. The lawsuit was filed moments before the court closed Friday and disclosed late Saturday by people working on the case.

The sale, already approved by the Bush administration, has drawn escalating criticism by lawmakers in Washington who maintain the United Arab Emirates is not consistent in its support of U.S. terrorism-fighting efforts. At least one Senate oversight hearing is planned for later this month.

The Port of Miami is among the nation's busiest. It is a hub for the nation's cruise ships, which carry more than 6 million passengers a year, and the seaport services more than 30 ocean carriers, which delivered more than 1 million cargo containers there last year.

A New Jersey lawmaker said Saturday he intends to require U.S. port security officials be American citizens, to prevent overseas companies operating domestic shipping facilities from hiring foreigners in such sensitive positions. Republican Frank A. LoBiondo, chairman of the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee, cited "significant" security worries over the sale to Dubai Ports World.