Jun. 18--NEWPORT NEWS -- The livelihoods of more than 750,000 workers nationally - including perhaps more than 30,000 in Hampton Roads - soon will depend on holding a small fingerprint-based identification card. Under a federal rule, many shipyard workers, longshoremen, truck drivers and railway employees soon won't be able to get unescorted access to docks or shipyards unless they've passed an FBI criminal-background check and have the card to prove it.
Convictions for crimes such as treason, espionage, sedition, murder and terrorism will preclude a worker from working on certain docks.
But other crimes - such as robbery, drug distribution, sexual assault and immigration charges - also could kick workers out of their jobs, depending on how long ago the crime occurred or when they were let out of prison.
The system, called the Transportation Worker Identification Credential, is being developed, but is close to completion. The first cards, which will cost $149 apiece for most workers, are to be issued later this year.
Here are some questions about the new system and the best effort by the Daily Press of finding the answers.
Q: What is the security concern at seaports and shipyards?
A: Since Sept. 11, 2001, experts have said seaports are vulnerable to terrorism. Terrorists could attempt to sneak weapons of mass destruction - or other terrorists - into this country on truck-sized marine containers. Mariners could use an explosives-laden ship and crash it or blow it up near bridges, tunnels, nuclear power plants, Navy ships or cruise ships.
Q: How would a new port identification stop that?
A: One concern is that terrorists - possibly working at the ports and shipyards - could accept weapons from overseas or commandeer a ship berthed at U.S. docks. The hope is that a new security card system will reduce that potential by ensuring those who work on the docks have had security checks.
Q: Don't port and shipyard workers have security IDs now?
A: Yes. But the background checks aren't typically as extensive for all dockworkers as what will be required under the new system. Many companies require workers to get local and/or state criminal background checks, but few require most of their workers to get national FBI background checks that include state and federal records. Also, unlike most current identification systems, the new system will have a worker's digital fingerprints embedded into the card.
Q: How will the fingerprint system work?
A: A worker would walk up to an access gate with his card, and a system scanner would decipher whether the fingerprint embedded on the card matches the worker's fingerprint. The rules would require a fingerprint scan each time that a worker goes through a gate at all threat levels. The terminal or shipyard would have to update its criminal list from the FBI either every day or every week, depending on threat level.
Q: Does a worker have any recourse if he or she is kicked out of working the docks?
A: Yes. There are permanent disqualifying crimes - which would forever ban a worker from working the dock - as well as interim disqualifying crimes. (See the boxes on Page D1 for the lists.) The interim crimes would ban a person from working on the dock if convicted within the previous seven years or released from prison within the previous five. A formal appeals and waiver processes would be available for the interim offenses, so a worker could argue that his or her right to work should be reinstated.
Q: Are there holes in the system?
A: Yes. Those who touch the containers earlier in the distribution system - say, at factories and warehouses overseas - don't need a TWIC. So workers without TWICs could access a piece of cargo starting before its arrival on U.S. shores. The restrictions apply only to workers in docks or shipyards - not to truckers or railway workers elsewhere. Also, the requirement that vessels themselves also have their own TWIC program in place applies only to U.S.-flagged vessels - not the foreign-flagged vessels that make up the bulk of international cargo traffic these days. Mariners from overseas whose ship is berthed at a terminal also won't have to get a TWIC - since they generally don't have unescorted terminal access.
Q: Are we one step closer to a national identification card system?
A: Possibly. This effort entails perhaps the biggest effort yet to create a national fingerprint-based database of workers. There's talk of combining this with a system for workers in the aviation industry.
Q: Who has to pay for the cards?
A: The workers will be responsible for paying for the card, which would cost $149 and last five years. Nothing in the rule precludes a company from agreeing to cover the costs as part of their agreements with their workers. The cost of the scanners and the companies running them will mainly be borne by the companies and ports enacting them.
Q: Will this system pertain to all docks?
A: Any companies or maritime entities who have to file security plans under the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002 have to abide by the TWIC system. This includes about 60 port terminal sites in Hampton Roads - or all those that accept international vessel traffic. Vessels of more than 100 gross tons also have to abide by the rules.
(Daily Press (Newport News, VA) (KRT) -- 06/19/06)