EU official lobbies against 100% box exams during Washington visit
A top European Union official Monday urged the United States not to push for wholesale radiation and X-ray type inspections of containers in foreign ports because of the potential damage to international trade and U.S.-EU relations.
Laszlo Kovacs, EU commissioner for taxation and customs union, also expressed optimism that the two sides would coordinate their private sector partnership programs for supply chain security to accredit trusted shippers for expedited clearance of their shipments at the border.
A U.S. attempt to unilaterally impose 100-percent automated inspections at overseas ports with an unproven system could spur other nations to adopt similar measures and cause serious disruptions to the smooth flow of commerce, he told reporters in Washington following a meeting with U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. Kovacs asked the U.S. government to wait until the results are in from this year’s pilot program in Southampton, England, and five other ports that will test the feasibility of using an integrated, drive-through imaging and radiation detection system to check every container for nuclear weapons and other dangerous materials.
“As far as the 100-percent scanning is concerned, we have very serious doubts and concerns that it is effective. There is no experience because the U.S. has not introduced it on the domestic shipments. We understand that it would need quite a huge amount of money investment in the technology, investment in the infrastructure, and also the operation of the system would cost quite a lot.
“But it's certainly the money, but also the possible impact on international trade ' It could be easily interpreted and understood by the international community as a negative signal to world trade, and the question of reciprocity would be raised sooner or later. That would result in bottlenecks and would slow down international trade and would certainly increase the expenses,” Kovacs said.
His visit followed last week’s Senate vote to kill an amendment that would have required all containers within five years to be imaged overseas prior to entering the United States. But the issue is still alive because a House bill on homeland security contains the provision, and the joint version of the bill must still be worked out in a conference committee.
Although Kovacs called for a wait-and-see approach towards the Secure Freight Initiative pilot program, he made it clear that the EU expects the results to support its argument that technical and logistical challenges will be too great to overcome without disrupting trade.
“Our expectation is that this 100-percent scanning would have much more handicaps than benefits, if any benefits can be conceived of,” Kovacs said. He later added: “I do believe that the experiences of the Southampton pilot project will not justify the 100-percent scanning.”
He reiterated that a go-it-alone approach by the United States on international cargo security could harm broader relations between the world’s two largest trading blocs.
John Pulford, head of risk management and security for the taxation and customs union directorate-general, told Shippers’ NewsWire that 100-percent scanning would provide “a nice archive” of cargo contents, but doesn’t help prevent a terrorist attack because current systems aren’t able to analyze images and readings in real time. The images have some value in helping conduct a post-mortem analysis to help isolate the threat following an incident. But software that can automatically detect anomalies in the images is still years away from being perfected, he added.
“One of our concerns is that such a system will divert resources away from regular (customs security) controls,” Pulford said. “We are putting our resources more into trying to stop things from happening.”
Comprehensive inspection requirements would force all cargo through big hub ports and exclude smaller ports from the system, he said.
Vayl Oxford, director of the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, told a House Appropriations subcommittee Tuesday that the Department of Homeland Security has not looked beyond the six ports involved in the Secure Freight Initiative pilot project, but added that if the concept is expanded the department would consider options such as forcing cargo traffic through big ports that had the inspections systems.
The U.S. Container Security Initiative for selective inspection of cargo at foreign ports is scheduled to be operational at 58 ports by the end of this year. There are more than 700 ports around the world, at least 142 of which ship directly to the United States.
Kovacs met Tuesday with Sen. Joseph Lieberman, chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, as well as Rep. Edward Markey, a proponent of 100-percent inspection for maritime and air cargo, and Rep. Tom Lantos, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, to discuss supply chain security and joint efforts to combat counterfeiting. He is also scheduled to tour the Port of New York and New Jersey this week to see container terminal operations first hand.