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HOUSE OKS RADIATION DETECTORS FOR PORTS.

Byline: LISA FRIEDMAN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - The House voted overwhelmingly Thursday to install radiation detectors at 22 major seaports, even as Democrats warned that millions of cargo containers entering the U.S. remain vulnerable to nuclear smuggling.

The 421-2 vote was spurred by uproar last month over attempts by a Dubai-owned company to purchase terminal operations at six major U.S. ports. The bill's passage marks a major hurdle in efforts to protect seaports -- long recognized as a weak link in homeland security efforts -- from terrorist attacks.

The $5.5 billion bill, sponsored by Reps. Jane Harman, D-El Segundo, and Dan Lungren, R-Gold River, includes $400 million a year in grants expected to strongly benefit the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles.

Southern California's port complex is the largest in the country, handling about 14 million cargo containers annually.

``The Safe Ports Act is a truly, truly good piece,'' said Marisela Caraballo, legislative representative for the Port of Los Angeles. ``Unfortunately, it took the Dubai incident to really bring attention to America's ports.''

But, she added, ``it really is going to make a difference.''

The legislation awaits action in the Senate, which plans to consider a similar bill by Homeland Security Chairwoman Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, within a few months.

While objecting to requirements that biohazard detectors be installed at major seaports by 2007, the White House generally supports the measure.

``Within months we will accomplish -- just maybe -- what I call a legislative miracle,'' Harman said.

The bill requires the Department of Homeland Security to check the names of every port worker with access to secure areas against terrorist and immigration records. It increases the number of inspection officers, creates a port security training program and calls on the agency to develop a strategy for resuming trade in the event of a terrorist attack.

In addition to processing about half of all cargo containers that enter the U.S., Harman said, the ports handle 1 million cruise passengers annually, about 500,000 automobiles and 50 percent of California's oil imports.

``We learned a lesson from (Hurricane) Katrina,'' she said. ``We didn't plan before, we didn't respond during and we are still struggling to recover now.

``A shutdown of West Coast ports would cost between $1 billion and $2 billion per day.''

The bill also would require the DHS to establish security standards for all cargo entering the U.S. and expand the data it enters into a computerized system used to detect suspicious cargo.

Many Democrats and a smattering of Republicans objected, saying the bill should have required screening of 100 percent of overseas cargo.

About 6 percent is inspected now.

``This bill has a fatal flaw -- it relies upon paperwork checks,'' said Rep. Ed Markey, R-Mass.

Republicans argued that the technology is insufficient. House Majority Leader John Boehner said 100 percent screening would ``shut down worldwide shipping overnight.''

The security debate turned into a partisan fight, with Democrats attempting to get the upper hand in the national security debate and Republicans rejecting, 202-222, a procedural attempt by Democrats to force a vote on full cargo screening.

lisa.friedman(at)dailynews.com

(202) 662-8731
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:May 5, 2006
Words:525
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