Inspectors use high technology to check cargo

Gamma-ray checks, radiation devices, `busters' all employed

May 12, 2002|By Mitchel Maddux | Mitchel Maddux,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

HACKENSACK, N.J. - The team of inspectors peered into the door of a cargo container that had just arrived at Port Newark and scanned the darkened interior with suspicion.

"This is a definite winner," said Kevin McCabe, a chief inspector who runs the U.S. Customs Service's contraband unit at the Newark and Elizabeth seaports.

McCabe turned to the uniformed men beside him.

"We're going to have to use a `buster,'" he said, referring to a device used to detect false compartments that could contain drugs - or worse.

These are busy times for McCabe and his colleagues at the seaports, who have been on high alert since the Sept. 11 attacks.

The fear that terrorists may hide a weapon of mass destruction inside a marine cargo container has customs inspectors broadening their focus from searching only for narcotics.

6,000 containers a day

Roughly 6,000 containers move through the combined New York-New Jersey seaports every day, most arriving at bustling waterfront terminals in Newark, Elizabeth, and Jersey City.

Between 1991 and 2000, goods arriving in the harbor nearly doubled, from 7.8 million to 13.6 million metric tons. Combined, the New Jersey ports are now third-busiest in the country.

The rising volume of cargo makes the task of searching for terrorist devices a lot more complicated.

Robert C. Bonner, the customs commissioner, compared it to finding "deadly needles in the massive haystack of global trade."

Rectangular metal containers shipped a little more than week earlier - from places such as Egypt, Belgium, and Hong Kong - are lifted off vessels by cranes and loaded onto truck trailers or flatbed railcars. Within an hour, some of these containers have left the port and are traveling on trucks up McCarter Highway in Newark, carrying clothing to Paramus or furniture to Manhattan.

Experience counts

Searching each of the 1.8 million containers arriving in the seaport annually would bring commerce to a standstill and would require an army of customs inspectors, officials say. So McCabe and his colleagues rely on other methods, including sophisticated technology and old-fashioned experience to select which containers to open.

Inside the port building, an inspector on McCabe's team ran the "buster" over the surface of the building material in the container. He watched its digital readout for a measurement that might suggest a hollow spot. The thickness, weight, and packaging of the material created a challenge for the inspectors.

"This is a very difficult type of commodity to inspect," McCabe said.

At the same time, elsewhere in the port, customs inspectors were searching seven other cargo containers that had been targeted for closer scrutiny.

There was the container from Pakistan carrying personal effects, two from India with foodstuffs, a container of plantains from Chile, one with coconuts from the Dominican Republic, and others holding furniture from Guyana and wood from Guatemala.

Gamma-ray check

Another team of customs inspectors had set up a checkpoint where trucks hauling containers just unloaded from ships drove through an exit gate. The trucks passed under a U-shaped mechanical arm attached to the flatbed of a customs vehicle. Two inspectors looking at a computer screen inside the vehicle examined the containers' contents, revealed by gamma rays emitted from the extended arm.

One inspector used a computer mouse to adjust the image on the screen, zooming in and out, to probe the contents of the containers.

One carried motorcycles; another held crates of liquor. Inspectors can also use a variety of other devices to inspect containers' contents.

"We've got lots of toys here," McCabe said.

Included in the array are radiation detectors, ion analysis machines that identify substances by screening airborne particles, chemical strips that can detect traces of explosives when swiped on surfaces, electronic stethoscopes to listen for echoes that betray hollow spaces, and fiber-optic scopes that allow a peek inside goods.

The containers being scanned by the gamma-ray machine were randomly selected, but officials say that much of the cargo screened at the port is earmarked for inspection before the ships tie up at the docks.

Customs inspectors use special computer programs to review shipping manifests filed in advance of a vessel's arrival. They look at the country of origin, the overland and maritime routes a container traveled, and the freight forwarders, trucking firms, and shipping companies involved.

They cross-reference this information against customs computer databases, which contain lists of vessels previously involved in smuggling, and check intelligence reports generated by law enforcement, the military - and even the nation's spy agencies.

The inspectors feel they should know the port the way a beat cop knows his neighborhood.

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