Early checks set on cargo to U.S.

Homeland Security to screen containers before they sail from six foreign ports

December 08, 2006|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,sun reporter

The Department of Homeland Security said yesterday that it would begin screening for nuclear and radiological material in containerized cargo at six foreign ports before it leaves for U.S. gateways, including the port of Baltimore.

The ports where screening will be conducted include Port Qasim in Pakistan, Puerto Cortes in Honduras, Southampton in the United Kingdom, Salalah in Oman, the port of Singapore and the Gamman Terminal at the port of Busan in South Korea.

Though it will affect just 7 percent of the 11 million containers that enter U.S. ports annually, federal officials hope the $60 million program will be expanded to more foreign ports if global shippers, governments and others embrace it. The containers typically are filled with such items as electronics, furniture, toys and clothes.

The program announced yesterday is based on one that has been operating in Hong Kong, ordered by Congress in September, to check the containers before they reach U.S. shores. Cargo containers, the 20- or 40-foot-long metal boxes in which most imported goods arrive, have long been considered a weak link in maritime security.

Democrats in Washington had pushed for all containers to be screened for bomb-making ma- terials before being sent to the United States on cargo ships. Some industry officials and Republicans in Washington thought that would cause havoc in shipping. This program was a compromise.

"Our highest priority and greatest sense of urgency has to be aimed at preventing a nuclear weapon or dirty bomb attack against the homeland," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said in a statement. "This initiative advances a comprehensive strategy to secure the global supply chain and cut off any possibility of exploitation by terrorists."

Under an agreement with the foreign governments, all the containers at three of the ports and a percentage of containers at the others will be sent through a radiation-detection portal by local port operators beginning in early 2007. The findings will be turned over to U.S. officials at those ports or at a central command center in the United States.

The six ports represent about 25 percent of the cargo shipped by sea to U.S. ports, but not all of the containers in Singapore, South Korea and Oman can be scanned initially because they are too large. None of the containers deemed suspect are to be shipped until they are searched or otherwise cleared by U.S. officials.

The Helen Delich Bentley Port of Baltimore is not one of the nation's largest container ports, but 60 percent of its cargo comes in those metal boxes. The port offloaded 389,003 containers last year, up almost 28,000 from the year before.

The port of Baltimore receives containers from four of the six ports in the pilot program - South Korea, Singapore, Pakistan and the United Kingdom - although port officials couldn't immediately say what percentage of its containers comes from them.

The port has been a test site for some of Homeland Security's newest security technology. It has two radiation detectors at Seagirt Marine Terminal and is expecting two more. Containers flagged by U.S. officials are sent through the machines before being put on trains or trucks out of the port.

"We feel as protected as any port in the nation," said Richard Scher, a port spokesman. "We have an outstanding security team in place. ... We've always said that we welcome increased security and attention, but not at the cost of compromising commerce."

The new program puts the U.S. government in partnership with the Arab-owned company that it recently was forced out of its own ports over security concerns. Dubai Ports World has a hand in operating three of the six foreign ports in the Homeland Security program. They are in Pakistan, the United Kingdom and South Korea.

The company, owned by the government of Dubai, agreed this year to resell its newly acquired U.S. assets after facing controversy on Capitol Hill. Those assets, bought from Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Co., or P&O Ports, include the contract to operate Seagirt Marine Terminal.

The company insisted it was not a security threat and had the money and global reach - 45 terminals outside the United States - to aid in port security. The Bush administration and many analysts agreed.

Michael Moore, a DP World senior vice president, envisions the new program expanding as technology does. He said trucks with containers in tow now can drive through screening machines at a reasonable pace.

"We support 100 percent screening," he said. "We have already said we'd install equipment at all of our facilities. It will come down to the government's ability to strike agreements with other governments."

Stephen E. Flynn, a retired Coast Guard commander and a port security analyst for the Council on Foreign Relations, said the program will rely on more operators and others in the industry to make it work.

He called the pilot program a good first step, but said it will be a waste of money and time if it is not expanded after a year to more ports. The many layers of security in place now rely heavily on the honor system and offer little accountability if something goes wrong.

"If the terrorists give us another year, it will be a year well-spent," Flynn said. "The real issue will be whether this is another system of pilots or a real sincere effort, well- funded and supported by the private sector, to create a global approach to manage risk. ... The nightmare scenario of a dirty bomb making it into a container and on a truck in Chicago is very plausible."

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

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