COAC weighs in on security, container seals
A key industry panel advised the U.S. government to mandate within a year the use of more secure container seals for international shipments, rather than continue policies that make their use voluntary for companies that want to receive faster clearance of their goods as a reward for being trusted shippers.
The recommendation was included in a two-part report prepared by a subcommittee of the Advisory Committee on Commercial Operations of Customs and Border Protection (COAC), tasked by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to develop performance standards for enhancing container security in the near-term and ideas for implementing a coordinated systems approach to secure the intermodal freight transportation network.
The group of import/export executives also called on Homeland Security officials collect better commercial data for targeting high-risk shipments, define contingency plans for keeping trade flowing in the event of a container-related terrorist attack and expand programs to inspect cargo at overseas ports before they arrive in U.S. ports.
COAC presented the findings to DHS officials Friday during a quarterly meeting in Buffalo, N.Y. COAC said it was unable to complete a third report on developing a way to measure the effectiveness of security programs and whether companies that tighten the security of their internal supply networks are benefiting from reduced cargo examinations. Subcommittee members will continue to work in private to deliver the report to DHS by the end of the month.
The report, a copy of which was obtained by American Shipper, emphasizes that international shippers have an obligation to properly seal containers at the point of stuffing and that ocean carriers must certify that the seal has been properly placed on the container. The subcommittee also addressed ways to deal with broken or missing seals, seal numbers that don’t match the seal number listed on the shipping documents and other red flags for tampering with a container, as well as how to verify whether inspectors or others have legitimately replaced a seal. The group pointed to the problem of empty containers and said Customs and Border Protection (CBP) should do more to keep tabs on empty containers, especially those entering the United States.
The proposal for a seal verification process is something that can be done immediately, until “smart container” technology that utilizes sensors to monitor and track containers is available, the industry panel said. However, it said, “it is not practicable to outfit 17 million containers with such ‘smart’ systems.” Such smart tracking devices should be a voluntary option available to shippers, especially those seeking green lane treatment in Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT), the group recommended. The devices would not be permanent parts of the container but would be recycled, it said.
COAC said the border protection agency’s Automated Targeting System for culling high-risk shipments needs better advance shipping data than is available on the manifest filed by ocean carriers before loading a vessel. The trade executives called on the government to collect information about container contents from the U.S. importer or foreign exporter. Security and industry experts say this type of data is more accurate and detailed than manifest information, but in the past some companies have objected to such information sharing for privacy and cost reasons.
The group suggested that data elements normally found on a merchandise entry form and presented to CBP after merchandise arrives in the country — better cargo descriptions, the party that is purchasing the goods, the ultimate consignee, the point of origin of the goods — should be submitted 24 hours before vessel loading along with the manifest. The early filing of these extra data elements would not be considered a formal filing of a customs declaration. The data would only be used for cargo screening and not to enforce compliance with trade regulations, the panel cautioned. The group said further study is needed on trying to obtain information on the origin of a container shipment, which may be transshipped without the knowledge of the importer.
An effective system of data collection requires a phase-in period for industry to meet the reporting requirements, clear guidance on consequences for companies that do not provide the import information in advance, and adequate government resources for data systems to handle the extra information.
COAC expressed support for expanding the Container Security Initiative whereby CBP inspectors in foreign ports use targeting data to identify containers for host customs authorities to check before export to the United States. The group urged CBP to iron out with foreign governments any differences in expectations and operational policies for the program, including procedures for dealing with cargo in the event of a terrorist incident involving maritime cargo somewhere in the world.
“U.S. Customs must be able to demonstrate to the Department of Homeland Security, the Congress and the American public that foreign CSI ports conduct more than a de minimis amount of examinations and inspections,” the report added. Some security experts and Democratic aides on Capitol Hill have questioned whether CSI is resulting in more than a handful of token exams per day.
COAC also urged CBP to define what factors define a secure shipment eligible for “green lane” treatment in the event of a terrorist attack so that carriers, shippers and terminal operators can make contingency plans. One suggested scenario would generally allow companies participating in C-TPAT’s supply chain security regime to benefit from reduced examination rates, but would add further safeguards if companies want fast-lane treatment in the wake of a terrorist incident. Shipments in which the exporter is on record with a foreign government as being a secure shipper, the U.S. shipper uses in-house or third-party inspectors to certify secure loading of containers at the supplier site and a high security seal has been fastened might still be processed without delay in a post-attack environment, the group said.
The industry representatives called on DHS and CBP to implement effective contingency plans for an attack on the maritime system so that it is clear who has decision-making authority within the federal government, and at the local and port level, to determine what shipments will be allowed to flow, if it will be diverted to other ports and under what criteria. Those plans need to be shared with the trade community so it can plan appropriately, the report said.
COAC said further examination of truck and other intermodal links in foreign countries prior to reaching the port of departure is necessary but outside the scope of the study. Once C-TPAT is fully running and CBP is staffed to verify participation, the agency might consider expanding the program to include truck, rail or barge transportation companies in foreign countries, in the same way it is beginning to open the program to some foreign manufacturers, the report said.
COAC said DHS needs to place “more urgent priority” on developing a long-awaited Transportation Worker Identification Card system that can be used to access secure areas in multiple ports, airports and other facilities.