GAO to DHS: coordinate TWIC and related background checks

| 5/2/2007

Two years ago, Michael Zanella received a letter in the mail saying he needed to pay $97 and be fingerprinted to keep his hazmat hauling endorsement. The OOIDA member from Columbus, OH, complied and spent three half days submitting biometric data before receiving a letter certifying his hazmat status until 2010.

In March, however, Ohio licensing officials said they wanted Michael’s fingerprints again, and he’d owe another $100 because “the state of Ohio wants hazmat certifications to renew the same time as CDLs,” Zanella told Land Line.

Overlaps in background checks have caught the attention of the federal government’s own auditing firm, which recently said the growing number of background checks required for programs like TWIC and FAST should be consolidated to minimize redundancy, divergent fees and burdensome expenses.

The Government Accountability Office issued a report last week on the Department of Homeland Security’s efforts to eliminate redundant background checks. Beginning with the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, the report states, the federal government has added more than 20 background check requirements, with 16 such actions taken since Sept. 11, 2001.

“GAO found variations in the fees applicants are charged as well as differences in disqualifying offenses and renewal requirements,” the report read. “Because DHS is responsible for a large number of background check programs, the department might be best positioned to explore – with other federal agencies – possible options to coordinate and align background check programs government wide.”

Additionally, background checks for the Transportation Worker Identification Credential program, the Coast Guard’s Merchant Mariner Document and Merchant Mariner License and other requirements frequently overlap for workers who need background checks at ports, U.S. borders and for hauling hazmat, the report stated.

DHS and the Coast Guard have recently publicly said they’ll take steps to consolidate repetitive background checks, but the GAO said that different needs for each credential combined with the government’s lack of knowledge of the cost to standardize background checks will require firm time frames and budgeting.

“We found instances of redundancies in each of the programs’ use of the same or similar background check process already completed on an individual by another program,” the GAO report reads. “In addition, (four) programs operate separate enrollment facilities for collecting biometric and biographic information.”

Coordination of background checks could slow the already plodding nature of getting TWIC off the ground.

The TWIC program will require more than 750,000 port employees, longshoreman, mariners, truckers and others who require unescorted access to secure areas of ports to have background checks before being issued cards with their biometric data.

Last month, the Transportation Security Administration top official told the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee that his agency may miss a deadline to issue TWIC cards to workers at 10 U.S. seaports by July 1.

OOIDA executives explained the association’s concerns about repetitive and ineffective background checks for TWIC and other programs to GAO officials at a meeting in January at the association’s Grain Valley, MO, offices.

As of last month, the TWIC program had received more than $79 million in taxpayer money for TWIC, according to the GAO.

The government won’t be getting more hazmat registration fees from Michael Zanella.

Zanella – who has hauled hazmat for 20 years – said he’ll be looking for other work.

“Pretty soon no one will haul hazmat because it is not profitable for the driver to do so,” he said. “I told the DMV to take the hazmat endorsement off my license.”

– By Charlie Morasch, staff writer