Trade resumption contingency plans could include rollback of regs
One of the ways the U.S. government could help the economy quickly recover from a terrorist attack or natural disaster is by implementing an exemption to the Jones Act and allowing foreign vessels to engage in shipping activity hauling domestic products between U.S. ports, a Customs and Border Protection official said last week.
The Jones Act is one of many laws and regulations that could be identified in advance and quickly lifted in an emergency to help facilitate normal business operations that depend on imports and exports, said Tom Bush, deputy director of the Office of Anti-Terrorism, at Thursday’s quarterly meeting of the Commercial Operations Advisory Committee (COAC). CBP would prefer that COAC make specific recommendations about which regulations would provide the biggest benefit to business resumption if they were loosened, he said.
The Jones Act restricts transportation trade in coastal waters to U.S.-flagged vessels.
Bush’s comments came in response to a recent survey conducted by COAC of international trade industry participants. The trade community asked the Department of Homeland Security to examine current legal restrictions and identify those that could be lifted under streamlined processes in the aftermath of a terrorist security incident.
The government has developed overarching national maritime and incident response plans to guide government and private sector efforts to resume maritime trade in the event of a terrorist incident or natural disaster. DHS is in charge of coordinating a national response to determine when it is safe and in what order to reopen ports, redirect cargo and release it at other ports that were not the target of an attack or disruptive incident. Agencies and industry are still working out the details of how to implement the plans.
DHS has said its policy is not to engage in a wholesale closure of all ports so as not to cripple the economy in the event of an attack.
The trade community reiterated in the survey its desire for government to speak with one authoritative voice that provides clear, concise and reliable information about port closures, denied entry of vessels, container movements and other situations that effect commerce. Uniform communications are critical for businesses to understand the situation and apply their own contingency plans.
Bush said that CBP and the Coast Guard are working more closely than ever to link command centers and response protocols for maritime operations under DHS’s response plans. The two sister agencies recently signed a charter to collaborate on a number of joint initiatives, including operational coordination at the port level, he said.
The DHS response plans developed late last year and in early 2006 call for DHS to designate a principle federal officer to serve as the person in charge in each region and for agencies to set up joint field offices and report through a National Operating Center.
Bush said it is also critical for the private sector to share information with the government so it can gain situational awareness about the incident and speed up its forensic examination to determine if the incident is a diversion, an accident or part of a series of attacks.
As part of its contingency planning efforts, CBP two weeks ago held tabletop exercises in Detroit with the Canada Border Services Agency and the private sector to see how response efforts played out in the aftermath of a terror attack.
The exercise confirmed that companies that participate in the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism, Free and Secure Trade and the Automated Commercial Environment (ACE) improved CBP’s visibility into commercial supply chains and facilitated pre-approved low-risk shipments, Bush said.
Participants also determined that early and frequent communications with trade was key to resuming normal operations at ports of entry. Based on the exercise, CBP has committed to provide industry with six data elements describing the incident and response. Those elements include:
* Location of the incident.
* Other nearby ports affected by any closures.
* Duration of the delay until better situational assessments are available and the impact on border wait times.
* Suggested alternative routes to handle cargo movements.
Information will be posted on the ACE and C-TPAT secure Web portals and the CBP Web site, Bush said.
The tabletop exercise also helped federal, state and local governments prioritize their responses, including the need to set up a dedicated lane through the Detroit-Windsor tunnel or other means to get nurses from Canada to their jobs in U.S. hospitals.
“The main intent was to start a dialogue on how to optimize trade continuity,” Bush said.
General Motors participated in the exercise and found it very useful, said Kevin Smith, the company’s customs director. He encouraged both countries to hold more of these exercises so stakeholders can talk to each other and understand what is being planned.
“There are a variety of possible incidents for which the precise planning for is impossible, but you can plan communication for any situation,” he said.