Cargo Screening Mandate to Come With High Price Tag

By Sara Peck and Priscilla Ybarra
A program created to scan 100 percent of all shipping containers for radiation threats before leaving foreign seaports cost more than $60 million at three of its seven pilot locations.

But that’s a miniscule number of ports compared to what Congress wants, testimony at a recent Senate hearing revealed.

It has not been determined whether port facilities, foreign governments, or U.S. taxpayers will pay to expand and maintain scanners at the approximately 700 ports worldwide that export to the United States.

Despite Congress’ mandate, DHS has maintained that 100 percent screening is inefficient and that a risk-based system — including data mining to determine which containers should be separated for screening — is more efficient.

In December 2006, Customs and Border Protection and the Department of Energy created the Secure Freight Initiative, which seeks to prevent weapons of mass destruction from entering the United States.

“The benefit of immediate widespread deployments must be weighed against the department’s funding needs to address other homeland security priorities,” Jayson Ahern, CBP deputy commissioner, told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

The pilot program was developed to test the feasibility of 100 percent scanning of U.S.-bound container cargo at seven ports and involved the use of advanced scanning equipment and an integrated examination system.

Every lane was equipped with a radiation portal monitor and a worker who thoroughly searched each container.

However, after completing the pilot program in three relatively small ports located in Pakistan, Honduras and the United Kingdom, several challenges arose, including the high cost to properly deploy and maintain the scanning equipment.

CBP remains unsure as to whom will bear the future financial burden to set up and maintain the scanners. The agency spent $8 million per lane, said Ahern, while adding that larger ports like Hong Kong have as many as 10 lanes.

“There are 300 containers [coming through] per hour in Hong Kong,” Ahern pointed out. “Commerce will slow down.”

However, Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, D-N.J., stressed the importance of 100 percent scanning and repeatedly asked Ahern when, and if, that would be feasible. Ahearn said he could not yet provide the committee with an answer.

Topics: Homeland Security, DHS Budget, MaritimePort Security

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