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07 November 2003

House Bill Would Require Coast Guard to Inspect Foreign Ships

Measure would reauthorize agency through 2005

By Andrzej Zwaniecki
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- The U.S. House of Representatives approved a $7.1 billion bill that would require the Coast Guard to review the security plans of foreign ships entering U.S. territorial waters.

The Coast Guard bill, which reauthorizes funding for the agency through 2005, passed November 5 by voice vote.

The Senate has yet to vote on its own version of the Coast Guard legislation.

The House measure would oblige the Coast Guard -- since March 2003 an agency in the Department of Homeland Security -- to assess the security plans of foreign ships to make sure that they comply with security and safety standards established by the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), according to news reports.

The bill also contains provisions that would help the agency hire more personnel, authorize it to suspend or revoke a merchant seaman's credentials if the individual poses a safety or security threat, and allow the Transportation Department to require non-tank vessels to prepare oil spill response plans.

In addition, the legislation would require the Coast Guard to report to Congress on the number and types of cargo containers and ships that enter U.S. ports and develop a method to certify so-called classification societies, private groups on which foreign governments often rely for maritime security and safety inspections.

During a June House Transportation subcommittee hearing, Coast Guard Commandant Thomas Collins said his agency had no choice but to accept temporarily reviews done by classification societies because the Coast Guard lacked money to evaluate on its own the security plans of around 10,000 foreign ships.

However, several lawmakers criticized this approach, arguing that it ignored a mandate in a 2002 law. The 2002 maritime security measure, designed to counter terrorist threats against the United States and its maritime industry, called on ship owners and operators to develop security plans for approval by the Transportation Department and required the department -- the home of the Coast Guard at the time -- to assess security at high-risk foreign ports and those from which high volumes of U.S.-destined cargo originate.

The authorization bill approved in July by the Senate Transportation committee would provide $6.9 billion for the Coast Guard. If the full Senate approves the measure the two versions must be reconciled and the final bill has to be passed by both chambers before the president can sign it into law.

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)