Homeland Secretary Janet Napolitano has formally notified Congress that her department will postpone by two years the mandate that all inbound ocean containers be scanned for hidden nuclear weapons or other terror-related contraband at foreign ports by July 2012.
The 9/11 Recommendations Act that required the 100-percent inspections included authority for the secretary to waive the deadline under certain conditions.
In a May 2 letter
to the House and Senate Homeland Security committees, obtained by American Shipper
, Napolitano said the extension is necessary because moving ahead "will have a significant and negative impact on trade capacity and the flow of cargo" and foreign ports do not have the physical space and configuration for efficiently routing cargo through non-intrusive inspection stations.
One of the biggest challenges is dealing with transshipment cargo that is relayed between vessels, in addition to other transport modes such as barges or trains, in foreign ports, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Requiring all containers to be inspected would significantly increase cargo handling and storage requirements to get the containers to another part of the terminal for inspection before returning them to complete the transfer.
The decision is not unexpected as it became clear to many lawmakers in recent years that the 2007 law requiring every container to pass through x-ray and radiation detection monitors was unrealistic and would massively disrupt international trade flows while imposing huge costs on the system.
The Department of Homeland Security, going back to the Bush administration, strongly resisted the scan-all law when it was introduced and worked hard after the fact to educate lawmakers about the logistical, financial, jurisdictional, diplomatic, economic and technological challenges involved in implementing such a program at hundreds of overseas ports where the United States lacks legal power. Shortly after taking office in 2009, Napolitano indicated that DHS would likely invoke the two-year scanning waiver allowed for under the law. The conference report accompanying the DHS fiscal year 2010 appropriations law passed by Congress acknowledged that "it has become increasingly clear that, at least for now, a 100 percent scanning goal is not feasible, and even if it were, would come at an unacceptably high cost monetarily and in the displacement of other efforts."
A pilot program to test full-scale inspections on U.S.-bound freight at six foreign ports reinforced DHS' position on the implementation hurdles. DHS estimates it would cost $16.8 billion just to deploy high-tech inspection equipment and associated technology at foreign ports.
Congress has not made much noise about DHS' failure to prepare for the inspection deadline, with many members publicly supporting continuation of the department's risk-based, layered approach for screening advance data and intelligence to selectively target shipments for inspection.
One legislative proposal would have pushed back the 100-percent inspection deadline by three years and only required use of x-ray or radiation detectors, not both. Another bill would have eliminated the box-scan mandate if DHS certifies that existing security programs are doing the job.
Those programs include the Importer Security Filing (advance cargo and origin data 24 hours prior to vessel loading), the advance manifest rule for carriers (filing to be done 24 hours prior to loading), the Container Security Initiative (58 ports with U.S. Customs officers where containers identified as high risk can be inspected by a domestic customs service), the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (industry partnership program that offers incentives to importers and their suppliers to implement plans to ensure shipment integrity from point of origin), and drive-through radiation portal monitors for all containers upon exiting a U.S. port.
A few Democratic lawmakers expressed frustration two years ago with DHS for seeking to opt out of the mandate.
Napolitano said DHS continues to explore technologies that can better scan maritime cargo in a practical way and is working with industry and international partners to raise standards and cooperation for global supply chain security.
Inspecting all containers is vehemently opposed by industry and most foreign nations who believe they would be required to bear the burden of an unfunded mandate. The European Union has remained one of the most outspoken international opponents of the rule.
Speaking last Friday with reporters after signing an agreement in Washington to facilitate trade flows for pre-approved shippers, EU Customs Union Director-General Heinz Zourek said the EU dislikes sweeping inspections because they are not practical and are only affordable when "public budgets would be abundant and you wouldn't know where to put the money." - Eric Kulisch