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Crain's Detroit: Senator, U.S. rep call on feds to examine security inconsistencies that hamper Michigan ports

February 27, 2020
Tim In The News

Frustrated with progress in their attempts to get the Detroit field office of U.S. Customs and Border Protection to treat Michigan ports the same way other Great Lakes and ocean ports are treated, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and Rep. Tim Walberg have called on the federal Government Accounting Office to study inconsistencies in cargo screening standards.

"CBP's inconsistent approach gives a strategic advantage to some ports while placing burdensome infrastructure requirements on other ports, such as demands from CBP to purchase expensive scanning equipment that is provided by the federal government at other points of entry," they wrote in a letter dated Feb. 24 to Gene Dodaro, comptroller general of the U.S. in the GAO.

"Other coastal and Great Lakes ports have not been subjected to the same strict screening requirements," said a news release accompanying the letter. "The change in requirements has severely impacted the Port of Monroe's operations and undermines Michigan's economic competitiveness."

On Dec. 8, a Crain's report detailed how stricter policies for Michigan ports have affected job creation and income for ports, focusing on the Port of Monroe. The Detroit office of CBP, which sets rules for Michigan ports, requires shipping containers to be scanned and X-rayed. However, none of Michigan's 40 ports has the technology to meet those requirements, effectively shutting the state out of the growing volume of shipping container traffic on the Great Lakes.

Many cargo ships unload at the Port of Toledo, instead, just 17 miles from the Port of Monroe. The Chicago office of CBP oversees ports in Ohio and has far more lenient rules than the Detroit office.

According to a University of Michigan study of port activity highlighted in the Crain's report, the rules established by the Detroit office of CBP have created millions of dollars in docking and unloading fees in Toledo and Cleveland and has cost Michigan hundreds of jobs. The Detroit office also has stricter screening requirements for what is called break-bulk cargo, which is cargo wrapped or boxed but not in steel containers.

Toledo doesn't have scanning or X-ray equipment, either. The Port of Cleveland has two radiation scanners but no X-ray equipment.

Last August, a ship arrived in Saginaw with cargo to be offloaded for a power plant under construction in Lansing. The Detroit office of CBP wouldn't let it be unloaded, so the ship sailed back to Toledo, where the cargo was unloaded without being X-rayed or scanned, put on trucks and driven to Lansing.

Last November, Paul LaMarre, the director of the Port of Monroe, joined Peters at a meeting with CBP officials in Washington, D.C., and Walberg, a Republican, talked about the issue in person with President Donald Trump in January.

On Feb. 13, Walberg set up a meeting in the White House with LaMarre and Peter Navarro, Trump's director of trade and manufacturing policy to discuss the inequities.

"In today's age of seemingly divisive politics, it is rewarding and reassuring that Sen. Gary Peters and Congressman Tim Walberg are putting Michigan's continued prosperity as a marine transportation hub above party differences. The fact that both legislators have engaged the United States Government Accountability Office to investigate USCBP's inequitable treatment of Michigan seaports is proof positive that USCBP's disingenuous dialogue with elected leadership will not be tolerated," LaMarre said in response to the letter to the GAO.

"To this day, USCBP refuses to answer one simple question: Why are Michigan ports being treated differently than anywhere else in the United States? They have evaded this question for months. It is time for the GAO to find out why."

This article was originally published in Crain's Detroit on February 26.

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