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Red tape moors US shipping indefinitely, harbor officials complain

The nation's ports complain they are tied up in a sea of federal red tape. In order to dredge their harbors, build new bulkheads, or just meet federal safety regulations, port officials say they have to comply with a mass of rules and regulations that can make the simplest project seem to take forever.

In a survey of the nation's ports, the Department of Commerce found the "primary effect" of the various federal regulations regarding the ports was to "place additional financial obligations on local public ports. . . ." As expected, the ports reacted adversely to this burden.

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Congress also has become concerned about the effects of the rules that govern the ports and has asked the General Accounting Office to study their impact. A preliminary report, says one Washington insider who has seen it, indicates "the federal government is not cutting it [red tape]." The various ports would agree.

For example, officials at one port in South Carolina told the Commerce Department that in dealing with one government agency -- assumed to be the Environmental Protection Agency -- it found, "a ponderous bureacracy -- one that is often unpredictable and undependable -- generally creates undue delays and subjects ports to bogged down planning sequences and grossly inflated costs."

The people who run still another port, Baltimore, complained that "delays in permits have increased our facility costs by 50 percent (in some instances, delays up to five years)." An executive at another port, in Redwood City, Calif. , said, "The loss of revenues due to delays, and indirect cost are difficult to calculate, but are nonetheless, very real and very substantial."

So far, the Commerce Department estimates US ports have spent $194 million over the past six years in compliance with federal standards, including environmental protection and employee health and safety. However, these expenditures will increase substantially over the next several years as more and rules come into effect. The department estimates expenses will increase to $64 million per year, a 53 percent increase, to meet the standards. Seventy-five percent of the expenditures were made to meet environmental rules. Port revenues financed 65 percent of these federal requirements. Bonds and local governments paid for the rest.

The Commerce Department recommended that "advance economic impact analyses" of new federal regulations be required to estimate the economic costs and consequences of federally mandated programs on local ports.

This approach would sit well with the ports. According to Herbert Haar, chairman of the American Association of Port Authorities ad hoc dredging committee, federal regulations have resulted in a loss of cargo valued at $3.4 billion. "EPA regulations," he pointedly says, "have been expensive."

Specifically, he objects to an EPA rule that delicate marine organisms, such as shrimp, be exposed to dredged sediment and evaluation made of their survival rate after 96 hours. "This is expensive, time consuming, and unnecessary," he claims. Previously, only chemical testing of the sediment in a laboratory was necessary to receive a permit.

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Charles Terrell, an EPA administrator, replies that the agency is familiar with some of the charges, but he can't comment on them. The EPA, he says, is the process of reveiwing its dredging regulations, and while the review is under way, he cannot comment. However, he adds, "we are trying to accommodate all of the 150 comments submitted."

Mr. Haar maintains that legislation over the past several years has "tipped too far to the environmentalists," and now they are "unreasonable." In the future, he says, the ports will fight back by:

* Commenting on proposed regulations in detail.

* Going to the courts for redress when they consider the rules unfair.

* Going to Congress to change the laws.

"We're not going to take it on the chin any more," he states, "without being head and having our day in court . . . there is too much at stake in the national interest."

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