Specter of 100% container exams looms again in Senate
After the private sector successfully killed legislative efforts last year to require technology-based exams of all inbound ocean containers, the ghost of 100-percent inspections has returned to frighten importers and maritime interests once again.
The Senate began debate Tuesday afternoon on legislation to implement the unfulfilled homeland security recommendations of the September 11 Commission, and an industry source with close ties to the Homeland Security Committee confirmed that Sen. Charles Schumer plans to introduce an amendment today to require that every incoming sea container undergo an automated inspection at an overseas port.
Senate leaders stripped any reference to maritime security from their version of H.R. 1 that the House of Representatives swiftly passed in January because the Department of Homeland Security is already moving to implement last year's port security mandate for a pilot scan-all program at a handful of ports. The Senate bill, S. 4, also includes aviation, rail and highway security sections incorporating legislation proposed by Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
But Schumer is expected, along with fellow New York and New Jersey Democrats Hillary Clinton, Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg, to offer an amendment that closely tracks the H.R. 1 requirement for radiation detection and cargo imaging, and tamper-notifying electronic security seals for every container when the technology becomes reliable, according to several Washington-based industry representatives.
Nervous observers said the vote could go either way.
Meanwhile, other senators are preparing second-degree amendments to soften any Schumer provision, the sources said. One potential draft amendment would extend by two years the deadline in H.R. 1 to scan all containers at large ports within three years and at smaller ports within five years. The bill would allow two-year follow-on extensions if the DHS certifies that scanning technology is not available for purchase or installation, or if technology or processes do not meet the standards set in the 2006 SAFE Port Act.
In a Feb. 23 letter, Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Norm Coleman of Minnesota, warned their colleagues that scanning all containers within five years at 700 or more foreign ports is not feasible.
'It is very unlikely that these deadlines can be met with current technology and port infrastructure ' Given the significant impact the requirement would have on our economy, it would not be responsible to impose arbitrary deadlines for deployment of 100 percent scanning,' the members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee wrote.
Schumer's office did not respond to phone and e-mail requests for information about his plans.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce was rushing late Wednesday to draft a letter urging senators to oppose comprehensive container inspections.
The issue has unified the business community, which has been engaged in a concentrated lobbying campaign to defeat a scan-all mandate because of concerns that it would slow down the flow of trade and potentially lead other countries to make similar demands on the U.S. government to examine its exports.
The Retail Leaders Industry Association, National Industrial Transportation League and the National Customs Brokers and Forwarders Association of America are among several groups fighting legislative attempts this session to impose requirements for wholesale X-ray style screening and sealing of containers. The legislative provision last year to conduct comprehensive inspections on a trial basis was a negotiated compromise that helped defeat 100-percent inspection amendments during the previous session.
Industry groups are incensed that lawmakers are moving to impose scan-all requirements when the wet cement of the SAFE Port Act has yet to dry. It's premature for Congress to consider a container scanning rule covering all trade lanes until the results are in later this year from DHS's Secure Freight Initiative pilot project that will run containers through detection equipment at several foreign ports, they say.
A number of governments have also weighed in against the inspection requirement in foreign ports, viewing it as a unilateral attempt to impose requirements on their countries.
The Consultative Shipping Group (CSG) said in a recent letter to Sen. Joseph Lieberman, chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, that mandatory scanning of U.S.-bound containers in foreign ports is not feasible.
The CSG represents the shipping ministers of Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom. The European Commission also supported the letter.
'No customs administration has the resources to scrutinize the scans of the many millions of containers that pass through the world's ports annually. Indeed, at present, more than 90 percent of the images of those containers that are scanned are used for forensic purposes only, not as a real-time means to prevent illicit activity,' CSG Chairman Brian Wadsworth wrote.
Wholesale imaging regimes 'have the potential to undermine a risk-based approach by misallocating resources,' the CSG said, and urged Congress to assess the Secure Freight pilot initiative before requiring more extensive measures.
'Positive results would, of course, be welcome and might constitute the basis for implementing the scheme on a reciprocal basis to exports from other parts of the world,' Wadsworth said.
In a separate letter to DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff last month, European Commissioner for Customs Lazlo Kovacs said that if Congress passed the inspection proposal 'it could well give the impression that the United States is not willing to work side by side with the international community to tackle the terrorist threat to the international supply chain. This impression would inevitably have negative consequences for the substantial ongoing cooperation between the U.S. and the EU.
'If the EU and the U.S., the two largest trading blocs in the world, were to introduce measures of the type now proposed, our abilities to trade fairly would be severely limited and we would be threatening world growth, investment and employment.'