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House OKs plan to screen cargo entering U.S.

Of the 5,000 cargo containers that pass through the port of Newark, N.J., every day, 98 percent undergo radiation screening.
Of the 5,000 cargo containers that pass through the port of Newark, N.J., every day, 98 percent undergo radiation screening. Mel Evans / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

The House approved a plan on Thursday to screen nearly all cargo entering the U.S. for nuclear hazards by next year, despite Bush administration warnings that the technology won’t be available.

The 421-2 vote caps months of debate in Congress over how to make the nation’s 140 seaports less vulnerable to terror threats without curbing commerce.

“There is little doubt that we need to take additional steps to finish the job and ensure that these security programs and others provide a robust, risk-based system for securing our vital international supply chain,” said House Homeland Security Chairman Peter King, R-N.Y.

The Homeland Security Department currently opens 6 percent of the 11 million cargo containers that enter U.S. seaports for inspections annually. Department spokeswoman Leah Yoon said it aims to screen 65 percent of goods for radiological materials by October.

Still, the Bush administration warned it may not have the funds to put detectors at all 22 major ports by next year as the legislation requires. It also termed as unnecessary a $400 million annual grant program over six years to pay for security programs at ports.

A statement by the White House Office of Management and Budget said it was concerned about key elements in the $2.4 billion bill “that have serious resource implications.”

Congress made port security a top priority after a heated controversy earlier this year over a Dubai company’s purchase of a British firm that controlled of some operations at six American ports. The outcry led the Dubai company, DP World, to decide to sell the U.S. operations to a still unnamed American firm.

Create extra port traffic?
Seizing on the political stakes, House Democrats said the legislation does not go far enough to secure seaports and pushed for an alternate plan that would require all incoming cargo to be screened at foreign ports — before heading to the United States.

Doing so, GOP lawmakers said, would snarl port traffic and stymie the economy because the X-ray technology needed is not widely available.

“All it takes is one atomic or radiological bomb to make 9-11 look like a firecracker,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y. “If we really want to make this country safer, we must demand that before any container is put on a ship bound for the United States it must be scanned electronically in the foreign port. It’s too late if we find a nuclear bomb in Los Angeles or New York.”

The debate briefly but heatedly escalated into a shouting match when King said his district lost more 150 residents in the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks on the World Trade Center.

Taking aim at Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., who earlier held up a cargo container’s lock to call for stronger security seals, King said: “I don’t need visual aids to remind me what happened on Sept. 11.”

“There were Bostonians on that plane!” Markey shouted back.

The bill calls for screening 98 percent of all incoming cargo with the detectors.

Currently, 214 monitors are installed at U.S. seaports, Yoon said. It would shift the funds for grants from U.S. Customs, and require port workers to carry biometric ID cards — something the Homeland Security is already doing.

A Senate committee has approved a similar bill that would also require Homeland Security to provide nuclear screening and X-ray imaging of cargo at three foreign seaports as a test pilot that could be expanded.