Friday, May 3, 2013

How Safe Is the Port of Boston?

[The following column appeared in the May 3, 2013, edition of the Boston Post-Gazette.]

Res Publica
How Safe Is the Port of Boston?
by David Trumbull -- May 3, 2013

U.S. Customs and Border Protection has failed to implement new security measures intended to protect America from chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons from entering a port -- this according to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service, a non-partisan "think tank" within the Library of Congress.

The SAFE Port Act of 2006 required that, by July 1, 2012, all maritime cargo containers be scanned using x-rays, high-definition imaging, or other means and pass through radiation detection equipment prior to being loaded on a U.S.-bound ship. That deadline was missed, and Department of Homeland Security ("DHS") Secretary Janet Napolitano, citing “diplomatic, financial, and logistical” obstacles, notified Congress that she would extend the 100% scanning deadline. The law allows her to grant Customs, an agency within DHS, such an extension, so her action is legal, but troubling for residents of Boston or other port cities.

Congress's mandate of 100% screening for "dirty bombs" or other weapons of mass destruction before a shipment could be embarked for the U.S. was never realistic. But that seldom slows down congress from passing "feel-good" but ineffective laws. It was not realistic expect 100% cooperation from foreign trading partners. The cost and logistical difficulties of 100% screening also made it unlikely. But with those difficulties, you would think that a substantial portion of U.S.-bound shipments would be screened for weapons of mass destruction before the get to a U.S. port where, if detonated, they could destroy not only the port facilities, but also any nearby city, such as Boston.

So how many shipments are scanned? Half? A quarter? Ten percent?

In fact merely ONE PERCENT of cargo is scanned before departing for the U.S. And just five percent is scanned after its arrival. According to the report "Some Members [of Congress] have expressed frustration that DHS has made little progress toward implementing 100% scanning, and questioned the department about plans to increase the percentage of cargo scanned."

The RAND Center for Terrorism Risk Management Policy, in 2006, explored the likely effects of a 10 kiloton nuclear bomb hidden by terrorists in a shipping container and detonated when unloaded onto a pier. They looked at the Port of Long Beach, near Los Angeles, and concluded that 60,000 people would die instantly. That's twenty times the number of deaths in the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center Towers in New York. An additional 150,000 would be exposed to hazardous levels of radioactivity. The entire Port of Long Beach and nearby Port of Los Angeles, including all ships and cargo and port facilities would be destroyed by fire. Six million people would have to evacuate the L.A. area and two to three million people would not be able to return because their neighborhoods were contaminated by radiation.

Imagine what such an attack would do to Boston. Now ask, what is your government doing to protect you?

The full report is available by clicking here.

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