About 750,000 truckers, longshoremen and others who work at the nation's ports - including about 20,000 at the port of Baltimore - will face background checks and be required to buy identification cards beginning in March, according to long-awaited rules released yesterday by the Transportation Security Administration.
The cards were required by Congress more than two years ago to enhance security at ports of entry. But the program proved difficult to implement because of its size and the advanced technology needed at 361 seaports.
Port workers have been checked against terrorist watch lists, but they will now have to withstand a more thorough vetting that includes any criminal history. They will also have to pay up to $159 for a card that will be good for five years.
Some labor groups had objected to extensive background checks and fees, saying the burdens may force some out of the industry. But federal and port officials say the cards are crucial to help shore up the seaports that some fear could provide an opening for terrorists' dirty bombs or other weapons.
"It's important to remember this is the first time something on this scale has been done," said Darrin Kayser, a spokesman for the TSA. "Port security is a critical area of transportation security. What we've announced ... builds on security measures we already have in place."
Kermit Bowling, president of International Longshoreman's Association Local 333, with about 1,000 members at the port of Baltimore, said officials will go over the rules with members today.
He said that while he and other officers do not want terrorists infiltrating the work force, they also do not want the government to "go back 20 or 30 years" to find mistakes made by longshoremen who are now good workers and citizens.
Kayser said that labor group fears that large numbers of workers will be disqualified after background checks are unfounded. The government began conducting such checks of hazardous-materials truck drivers recently and has not found a significant problem, he said.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, airport workers underwent additional screening, but the TSA's Kayser said the "closed" environment made that easier. Ports have more workers coming and going and not directly working for the port or a port tenant.
The rollout of the cards will begin in March and will continue for 18 months. Workers will be notified on how to apply. A contractor to manage the enrollment will be chosen in the coming weeks.
Port workers will have to submit fingerprints for their cards, although biometric readers will not be ready in March. Testing will begin this year for them. In the meantime, the Coast Guard will spot-check the cards, known as the Transportation Worker Identification Credential, or TWIC card. Security personnel at each port will be responsible for checking the cards as workers enter secure areas.
Some ports have been frustrated by the delay in implementing the federal program. Some hoped to start their own systems but didn't want to invest in a program that was not compatible with the TSA program.
A spokesman for the American Association of Port Authorities said the group would continue to work with the government on the regulations and development of the card readers. It will also lobby for more funding. Money for seaports still significantly lags behind spending on aviation security.
But, said Aaron Ellis, a group spokesman, "From what we've read so far ... AAPA is still very supportive of implementing the TWIC."
It's not yet known which ports will be first to get the cards.
At the Helen Delich Bentley Port of Baltimore, officials said they support the program.
"We're still digesting the information that just came out," said J.B. Hanson, a port spokesman. "But anything that will enhance security will be a plus for the ports throughout the United States."
Bowling, the Local 333 president, agreed but said he still has concerns about the background checks - and the fees. The cost may be a hardship for younger workers who make the least amount of money and work the fewest number of hours.