New U.S. Port Security Measures Move Closer to Becoming Law

By Elizabeth Kelleher
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington – The U.S. Senate unanimously passed the Port Security Improvement Act of 2006 on September 14.  The bill is similar to one passed by the U.S. House in May, and the two versions must be reconciled before a final measure can be sent to the White House for the president’s signature.

President Bush said, “I look forward to the House and Senate resolving their differences … and sending this legislation to me for my signature.”

The bills would codify and strengthen programs that already are under way, authorize more money for port security, call for pilot programs to scan all cargo coming through a port, encourage international standards for container security and require the U.S. government to develop a plan to ensure the resumption of trade after a terrorist attack.

U.S. seaports move more than 95 percent of overseas trade and, in 2005, logged 53,000 calls by foreign-flagged vessels, according to the office of Maine’s Senator Susan Collins, a sponsor of the legislation.

Current programs that would be expanded include the Container Security Initiative (CSI) and the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT).  Under CSI, a partner at a foreign port notifies the United States of details about the cargo 24 hours before containers are loaded.  U.S. officials then analyze the risk, based on the shipper and on the history of the container and can ask the foreign port to put it through a high-energy detector or to open it.  C-TPAT offers incentives to importers to the United States to share information on their employees with the United States.

The legislation would set up new pilot programs that would screen 100 percent of cargo being sent to the United States, with the goal of making that level of scrutiny standard – although there is no deadline for such action.

Peter Gatti, vice president of the National Industrial Transportation League, said his organization is supportive of the bills but concerned about delays that might result if, in the future, 100 percent of cargo must go through radiation detectors.  He said that today the technology is “not reliable and reports false positives,” and thus would cause slowdowns if the 11 million containers that come through U.S. ports each year had to be scanned.

The Senate bill would call for a study of user fees, also a concern of the league’s 700 members – mostly companies, like large retailers and car manufacturers, that purchase transportation services.  “A security fee to enhance technology to expedite shipping and do accurate scanning?  I don’t think there will be objections,” Gatti said, asking,  “But are monies … going to be diverted” to something other than port security programs?

Despite sharing concern about the prospect of 100 percent scanning in the future, a spokesman for the American Association of Port Authorities said that organization strongly supports the Senate legislation’s proposed $400 million a year for the Port Security Grant Program, which could be used by ports to make physical improvements to security – paying for fences, lights, gates or surveillance cameras.  Since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the government has spent $24 billion at airports but only $10 billion at ports, most of which has gone to federal agencies, not to the port authorities, according to the American Association of Port Authorities.

Of the legislation, Thomas Kornegay, president of the International Association of Ports and Harbors, said, “I think it's good.  It provides more customs agents and more security for cargo coming into the United States.  This is all positive."

But even though the House of Representatives, the Senate and the president favor the legislation, there might not be enough time in the current Congress for a conference committee to iron out differences between the House and Senate versions.  Only a few weeks, at most, remain before members of Congress will leave Washington to campaign before the November elections. The prospects for a post-election session are unknown.