- The Washington Times - Friday, November 15, 2002

Congress yesterday approved a maritime-security bill that would require ports and shippers to implement a wide range of plans to guard against terrorism.

The Senate passed the proposal on a 95-0 vote early yesterday and the House approved the measure on a voice vote late last night, paving the way for President Bush to sign it.

The bill requires vulnerability assessments and security plans at all U.S. seaports, background checks and identification cards for employees working in high-security areas, and mandates that ships electronically forward their cargo manifests before entering and prohibits improperly documented cargo from being unloaded.

The legislation puts off funding questions until next year.

Foreign ports also would come under scrutiny, with the Transportation Department required to assess security at foreign ports. U.S. ports would be allowed to deny entry to vessels that call on ports without effective anti-terrorism measures.

"The sheer size and complexity of our port facilities combined with the enormous volume of commercial cargo that travels through them every day makes them vulnerable to attack," said Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, South Carolina Democrat and the bill's main author. "Coupled with the dramatic threat risk and the potential severity of the consequences, our ports represent a significant weakness in our national security."

Ports that do not comply with the legislation could be shut down by the Coast Guard, but such extreme measures are not expected, said a Senate aide.

Some local authorities are wary of the new requirements.

"The legislation would appear to shift a great deal of the responsibility of port security from the federal level to that of the local level and also the private sector," said Richard Scher, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Transportation, which oversees port operations in the state. Mr. Scher would not elaborate.

Others were more upbeat.

"It's good news for us and for every port," said Robert Merhige, director of police at the Virginia Port Authority. The bill would help centralize and coordinate security issues.

Some ports already are working on certain directives but waiting for clarification on others, he said.

Hampton Roads, for example, has a comprehensive security plan and the port has issued about 7,000 identification cards to control access to different areas, Mr. Merhige said. Also in line with federal concerns, the port started using one radiation-detection device three weeks ago and two more will come on line in the next two months.

But with background checks, the authority is likely to wait for federal standards before screening workers, he said.

Final rules on all the bill's provisions could take up to a year.

Mr. Merhige said that 75 police officers guard the three-terminal Hampton Roads facility, where about 2,500 ships call per year.

Despite the new requirements, the amount of ships and cargo passing through terminals should not be slowed, he added. "Twenty years ago, we would have ground to a halt. But now the technology is there computerization and technology is so cutting edge that we can do this."

The Maritime Security Act has been in the works since 2000, but the September 11 terrorist attacks broadened its scope and added new legislative impetus.

One area of concern is funding for shippers and ports that would have to meet the new requirements. Some grants are available to ports but a final decision on costs and financing was put off for a year.

"The major issue is going to be how to fund it," said a Senate aide. "That was the issue that held us up for a while." User fees for shippers may be a result, the aide said, though the shipping industry opposes additional costs and Mr. Hollings had to drop the fees from the legislation to ensure passage.

"There are all kinds of different aspects of security," said Chris Koch, president of the World Shipping Council, which represents carriers. "Carriers, shippers, terminals and the government are all going to pay for some of it."

The United States has 361 ports, though only 50 are considered major trading ports, the Senate aide said.

U.S. ports received $5.23 billion in imports and shipped $1.96 billion in exports during 2001, according to government figures. Through July, the most recent figures available from the Army Corp of Engineers, nearly 717 million tons of cargo passed through U.S. ports.

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