Transportation secretary moves to secure U.S. seaports

| Monday, December 10, 2001

Many truckers have long been concerned about the gaps in security existing at our nation's ports. On Thursday (Dec. 6), Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, testifying before a U.S. House of Representatives transportation committee, called for a higher level of security checks at ports.

Under the proposed order, ships would have to provide a list of crew members 96 hours before docking in the United States. In a published report, Mineta said the measures are needed to help prevent terrorists from shipping hazardous materials through U.S. ports, or from using the ship itself as a bomb. The Coast Guard would be able to stop and board ships 12 miles from U.S. shores, that's four times the current limit.

Close to 27 million cargo containers reach U.S. ports each year. Only about 2 percent of those containers are inspected before being loaded on 18-wheelers or rail cars for delivery throughout the United States. Owner-operators have little opportunity or authority to inspect the container when it is assigned to them for transport. The containers are sealed and few are actually inspected by customs officials.

"There ought to be a better way to verify the contents of containers," said Todd Spencer, vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association. "As of this time there is no way to know if the contents of the container actually match the paperwork. The place to begin the fix is in the foreign ports when cargo is loaded."

Several senators testified at the hearing Thursday, among them was Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-SC). "Perhaps the most vulnerable link in our transportation system is the component few Americans ever see: our major seaports," said Hollings, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, who has introduced legislation to improve port security. "Our 361 sea and river ports handle 95 percent of U.S. international trade. These ports annually transfer more than 2 billion tons of freight, often in huge containers from ships directly onto trucks and rail cars...less than two percent of those containers are ever checked by customs or law enforcement officials. That is a gaping hole in our national security that must be fixed."

Mineta told the House subcommittee he was looking at the vulnerability of major ports, and said local authorities would be asked to develop their own security plans.

He said the department should be allowed to conduct security checks of foreign ports. He called for a rapid response team to quickly enhance port security when there are serious threats of terrorist activity. Mineta also said his department also was looking at technology to make it possible to quickly inspect sealed containers, rather than do an occasional check.

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