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Conferees Agree to Bill That Tightens Port Security

House-Senate team clears obstacles, backs added Coast Guard powers, employee background checks.

October 18, 2002|From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — House and Senate negotiators broke an impasse Thursday over a bill to tighten security at the nation's ports, giving the Coast Guard additional powers and requiring background checks of some port employees and new tracking systems for commercial ships.

The bill also requires every seaport to create a security committee involving federal, state, local and private law enforcement agencies.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) said the bill's need was underscored by the recent terrorist attack on a French oil tanker near a Yemeni port and the economic effect of a labor dispute at West Coast ports.

"The dire consequences of a terrorist event at our ports -- in human lives and economic disruption -- would be devastating," Hollings said. "Completion of this legislation represents a significant step forward for the nation's security."

The measure must be approved by the full Senate and the House, which won't consider it until after the Nov. 5 elections.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, concerns have been raised about possible terrorist attacks on ships containing highly flammable liquids or on fuel farms near ports, as well as the possibility of a nuclear weapon or other device hidden inside a container ship.

House Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska) was especially pleased that the bill expands the Coast Guard's role, said his spokesman, Steve Hansen.

Young sponsored the House version of the bill, which would require the Coast Guard to assess every U.S. port's vulnerability to terrorism and security standards at foreign ports served by ships that call on the United States.

Ships from ports that don't meet those standards could be barred from entering U.S. ports, and the Coast Guard would be given new powers to board ships to deter hijackings.

Hansen said that the House and Senate have agreed on about 90% of their differences.

"We have not reached a final agreement, but things are going very well," Hansen said. The House and Senate differ over language requiring vessel operators to provide background information about crews, he said.

The House and Senate had each passed a port security bill and worked out their main differences in conference, but couldn't agree on how to come up with the $1.2 billion to pay for it.

The bill would fund such security measures as cargo scanning equipment and transponders to keep track of ships.

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