Remember 9-11-01

Ports still fight
against terrorism’s
weak link

Honolulu's mainly domestic
shipments make it less vulnerable

By Alan Vaughn

Whatever you have in your home right now -- shoes, oven cleaner, a bottle of Budweiser -- the overwhelming odds are it arrived in Hawaii inside a 40-foot steel container somewhere in a stack several stories high on an oceangoing ship.

That event itself is unremarkable -- 98 percent of Hawaii's imported goods arrive via ship. All told, 90 percent of the world's trade moves in these containers, according to the U.S. Customs Service. Last year, about 160,000 of them entered Hawaii, among more than 17 million handled in U.S. ports.

The containers transport just about anything you can think of -- rice, pocketbooks, hair spray and doggie treats. They swarm into ports in an overwhelming volume that makes it impossible to verify the contents of all of them without bringing commerce to a halt.

About 2 percent nationwide were inspected last year, Customs says, though estimates vary. The rest, potentially at least, could hide explosives, illegal immigrants, smuggled drugs.

That gap, security officials say, means ports, on the mainland and in Hawaii, are a weak link in national security that smugglers and terrorists can easily exploit, and they know it.

In October, a suspected Al Qaida operative was discovered living in a container headed from Italy to Canada. According to Customs, the Egyptian native was supplied for the long overseas trip and possessed airport maps and security badges. West Coast ports increasingly see illegal immigrants from Asia packed into the containers for a risky journey across the Pacific.

But national security officials fear worse. Because the containers are designed to be quickly and easily transported, and are internationally uniform in size and construction, officials fear they also make ideal ways to transport weapons of mass destruction anywhere in the United States.

"Containers raise a particular concern because they are, by design, intermodal," U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said in a speech last fall. "The container unloaded at a port on one day can end up on a truck or a train deep in the heartland of America on the next."

Tightening port security, Mineta said, is necessary to reduce the risk that terrorists can ship in their next attack through a regularly operating port.

Though all U.S. ports are vulnerable, Honolulu may be in better shape than most, local officials say. The port has tightened security since Sept. 11, as have shipping companies. Coast Guard cutters cruise offshore. The harbor is patrolled 24 hours a day.

But Honolulu may also be safer because most foreign ocean shipments to Hawaii have already entered the United States on the mainland, likely on the West Coast, and have been checked through Customs and Coast Guard inspections once before being shipped on to Hawaii, where they face another round.

"We're fortunate that we get a lot of the same vessels," Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Mark Willis said. "Occasionally we get the foreign vessels or unique vessels."

That additional stop, and because domestic ships only use crew that are U.S. citizens, provides the islands a further margin of safety than places like Los Angeles, New Orleans or Seattle, shipping companies and Coast Guard officials say.

"We run in just about a closed loop from the islands back to the mainland," Matson Navigation Co. Vice President Rich Bliss said. The company uses the same crew and deals with the same shippers over and over, Bliss said.

The biggest thing the shipping companies have done, both Matson and CSX Lines said, is pay more attention to the subject. "We haven't done a hell of a lot since 9/11," Bliss said.

CSX increased terminal and on-ship security, and paid particular attention to hazardous materials, crew lists and vessel manifests, said Brian Taylor, vice president and general manager in Hawaii.

"Immediately following 9/11, we implemented very strict requirements on hazardous shipments," Taylor said.

CSX also began inspecting each empty container as it returned to the yard, but has since cut back to random shipments. Both Matson and CSX contract out additional random container checks to a private company, The Adherence Group (widely known as TAG), which checks the contents of containers and fines shippers if the contents don't match submitted paperwork.

Reliance on individual shippers is a key element in the security chain. The shipping companies, the Coast Guard and Customs all rely heavily on paperwork to tell them what is inside a container. That paperwork is filled out by whoever loaded the container, a private company or freight forwarder.

"Does that means it's the God's honest truth? In some cases, I guess not," Bliss said.

The Coast Guard focuses on inspecting containers holding nine classes of hazardous materials, but also inspects containers on a random basis or after a tip. An average container ship docking in Honolulu has 500 to 1,000 containers. Of those, between 30 and 60 may contain hazardous materials, said Holly Stedman, a Coast Guard inspector.

"You have to look at public safety as well as we don't want the bad guys to get a hold of it," Stedman said.

Since soon after Sept. 11, ships have been required to provide the Coast Guard records of what hazardous materials are being transported 96 hours before reaching port, giving inspectors time to comb through the paperwork and identify what they want to inspect.

Chlorine, for example, is a likely target for inspection. In addition to its usual use treating drinking water, the common gas was manufactured into one of the world's first chemical weapons.

Stedman is the primary local inspector for the Coast Guard, though a reservist was also activated after Sept. 11.

Last year, Stedman inspected 1,200 containers.

The rules on shipping hazardous materials, which include a wide array of items from kitchen cleaner to automobiles (the gas tanks), are housed in a manual known as Regulation 49, which is about three inches thick. The rules are very specific.

"If we had to label someone's kitchen like we do a container, there would be placards all over the place," said Capt. Gary E. Fleeger, senior vessel manager for Matson.

It can take Stedman from 30 minutes to two hours to inspect a container. The physical work, moving the container and opening it, is done by the shipping company.

Since Sept. 11, the Coast Guard has increased inspections. "Perhaps we've stepped it up a little bit, but we've always had our eye on that," Stedman said.

Despite the extra attention, the pace of shipping and processing containers has not slowed, say shippers and freight forwarding companies.

"With the Coast Guard and the TAG entity paying more attention, we still haven't experienced a slowdown in moving shipments for our customers," said Kelly Thomas, general manager for DHX Dependable Hawaiian Express.

His company and other freight forwarders, he said, have been asked to pay more attention and check out questionable shipments. But so far, there hasn't been much to check out.

While the Coast Guard's first duty is to block entry of a weapon that could cause mass casualties, shippers have their own nightmare scenario -- a ship intentionally sunk to block the channel into Honolulu Harbor.

"If you close that harbor, that would be very close to the end of the world," Matson's Fleeger said.

For the Coast Guard, it's tougher to identify the biggest potential threat. "There's just too many variables," Stedman said.

In the wake of Sept. 11, few will say that a terrorist attack through a Hawaii port is out of the question, but shippers rank the possibility low.

Bliss said: "What's the likelihood of someone wanting to blow up Oahu?"

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