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U. S. Border Patrol Supervisory Agent A. J. Price watches crews install one of four 80-foot-high camera towers that will monitor the international waterway at the Upper Niagara River.
Derek Gee/Buffalo News

07/05/09 07:20 AM

By end of summer, Border Patrol will have 24-7 watch on waterway


The Upper Niagara River will soon be under 24-7 scrutiny by U. S. Border Patrol personnel monitoring the international waterway with five cameras stationed on four 80-foot-high towers and an apartment building.

Work on the first of the camera towers, each costing about $1 million, started Monday at the Buffalo Coast Guard Station near the source of the Niagara River as construction crews used a crane to raise the galvanized steel pole and anchor it to a concrete pier.

Because of unstable soil conditions on the tiny peninsula where the Coast Guard site is situated across the Buffalo River from the Erie Basin Marina, construction workers previously drilled down 31 feet before hitting bedrock and pouring 55 cubic yards of concrete for the tower’s foundation.

In other words, the camera tower will be eyeballing the local waters for a long time to come in search of potential terrorist threats and smugglers, according to Border Patrol Agent A. J. Price.

“One of the reasons that this is such a priority is the information gathered through our partnership with Canadian intelligence,” Price said of the need to scan the river. “There are populations on the other side of the border that have ties to smuggling activities and even within the realm of countries with special interests.”

The range of each camera is five to seven miles and overlaps the range of the next camera further downstream.

When the four other camera sites are operating by the end of the summer, a bank of television screen monitors at the Border Patrol’s Buffalo Sector headquarters on Grand Island will provide live images of the entire length of the upper Niagara River and the lower Niagara River, where the cameras have already been in operation for several years.

The other new camera sites include the roof of a 13-story apartment building in Buffalo’s Riverside section, Beaver Island State Park’s southern point on Grand Island, the foot of Staley Road on the western shore of Grand Island, and the upstream water intake for the Niagara Hydroelectric Power Project in Niagara Falls.

For those concerned about intrusion into their privacy, such as boaters, sunbathers, and residents, Price said the Border Patrol has every intention of respecting the rights of citizens.

“Everyone who works in our command center has to have a rigorous background check, and the standards of conduct that we uphold basically have zero tolerance for any kind of mishandling of information that is gathered,” Price said.

Work on installing the camera network here had been delayed after monitoring towers elsewhere on the country’s southern and northern borders malfunctioned and Congress raised questions over administration of multimillion-dollar contracts to do the work.

But newer technology, Price said, has enabled cameras to function under extreme conditions, including the Buffalo Niagara region’s winter weather.

“The clarity of the cameras is going to be superior to any of the cameras we have throughout the rest of the country,” he said.

Each monitoring site has two camera “bundles” that allow for daytime and nighttime observation.

Real-time images from the cameras, Price said, will allow for better deployment of border patrol agents.

Plans to one day use high-tech surveillance on other sections of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario may eventually include radar to monitor boat traffic, the agent added.

But for now, he said, the focus is Western New York’s population centers because of the easy access to mass transit, such as bus stations and airports, where individuals illegally entering the U. S. often go.

And what about unmanned aircraft known as drones equipped with surveillance cameras that are flown along some remote sections of the northern border, including New York State’s North Country; could the skies here one day host them?

Price said it is possible such aircraft could be deployed here to perform special operations.