May 3--WASHINGTON -- A far-reaching port security bill sponsored by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., that eventually could lead to screening of all cargo containers headed to the United States was approved by the Senate Homeland Security Committee on Tuesday.
The measure also would increase funding for port security by more than 300 percent, create a new federal maritime security agency within the Department of Homeland Security and streamline the movement of cargo for importers such as Starbucks, Nike and REI who agree to abide by tougher security procedures.
The committee action came just weeks after the collapse of a controversial port deal involving a Dubai company that focused renewed attention on the security of overseas cargo headed to the United States.
In the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks, the 9/11 Commission concluded that even as commercial aviation remained a possible target, the risk of maritime terrorism might be greater.
The commission, along with other government agencies, has warned about the possibility of terrorists using cargo containers to smuggle weapons of mass destruction -- including nuclear dirty bombs -- into the United States. They also have warned about the deadly contamination that would result if terrorists exploded a dirty bomb shipped to an urban port such as the Port of Tacoma or the Port of Seattle.
"It's what keeps me up at night," Murray said of the terrorist threat to the nation's ports.
Murray, who has been working on port security issues since 9/11 and has been highly critical of the administration's efforts, introduced her bill last November. It was co-sponsored by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, chairwoman of the Homeland Security Committee.
Murray, who is not a member of the committee but attended the mark-up, said her goal was to have the bill on the president's desk by the end of the year. Similar legislation will be considered by the full House on Thursday.
"I am proud we are moving forward on this tough issue," the senator said.
Collins and other members of the committee gave Murray full credit for the bill.
A spokesman for the Port of Tacoma, Michael Wassem, also praised Murray's effort.
"It's a real-world approach to making us safer than we were yesterday," Wassem said, adding that port officials had met with Murray and her staff to discuss the measure.
The Port of Tacoma is the nation's sixth-largest port when it comes to cargo container volume, with more than 2.1 million containers handled last year. The Port of Seattle ranks fifth.
Because it handles a lot of Fort Lewis-related cargo, Wassem said Tacoma is considered one of the nation's strategic ports with tighter security than other ports. Since the 2001 terrorist attacks, he said, the port has worked to further tighten security at its facilities even as others have focused on improving the security of the arriving cargo.
"When you look at supply chain security, you have to look at all of it from Bangladesh to China to distribution centers outside Kansas City," he said. "Ports get the attention because that's where it all comes together."
Even though the Port of Pasco will not be directly affected by the new security precautions, Jim Toomey, its executive director, said the measure will have benefits.
"(The bill) has no direct application, but it has a positive impact on the safe and free flow of commerce," Toomey said. "Murray is out in front on this."
Toomey said that most of the containers entering the port are empty when they arrive in Pasco, then are filled with products to be shipped elsewhere. Toomey said it is possible the port may have some access to the increased grant money included in the bill.
About 95 percent of U.S. trade, worth nearly $1 trillion, flows through the nation's 361 seaports. The cargo arrives on more than 8,500 foreign vessels, which make more than 55,000 calls at U.S. ports annually. The ships transport about 11 million cargo containers, which carry 800 million tons of goods. An additional 175 billion gallons of oil and other fuels also arrive in the United States on ships.