Poor security leaves U.S. seaports vulnerable to drug smuggling, illegal immigration, cargo theft and even terrorist attacks on cruise ships, federal experts said Tuesday.
"A successful terrorist attack on any one of these ships could result in a catastrophic number of casualties and threaten the economic viability of the entire industry," said U.S. Coast Guard Commandant James M. Loy at a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing.
Just last week, Coast Guard units in Miami and the FBI were forced to respond to a bomb threat against a cruise ship capable of carrying 4,000 people, he said.
"Recent history shows us that, throughout the world, terrorists target transportation," Loy said. Adding to the concern is the fact that new, larger classes of cruise ships can carry more than 5,000 passengers and crew members.
Senate Commerce Chairman Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) and Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) want Congress to increase funding for such equipment as high-tech cargo container scanners and to improve coordination between federal and local agencies.
The legislation introduced Friday would be paid for by extending a shipping tax that is scheduled to expire in 2002. It would reauthorize the tax through 2006 and specify that the revenue--from $55 million to $57 million per year--would be spent on port security measures.
The bill specifies that $68 million would go to the U.S. Customs Service for new screening equipment, and $80 million to the U.S. Department of Transportation to provide loan guarantees and grants locally for improvements such as better fencing or surveillance.
There are no federal standards for security at U.S. seaports and no federal funding for security infrastructure, according to Hollings. Meanwhile, the ports handle 95% of the nation's international cargo, more than 134 million ferryboat passengers and more than 5 million cruise ship passengers per year.
Basil Maher of Jersey City, N.J., a container terminal operator who testified on behalf of two industry groups, the National Assn. of Waterfront Employers and the U.S. Maritime Alliance, said any new port security program should not require fees or taxes or force private companies to take on law enforcement obligations.
The senators' bill would implement recommendations made last year by a federal commission on port security and crime.
The commission said that less than 2% of the cargo now coming into the nation's seaports is inspected and that cargo theft costs the nation $12 billion per year.