US borders at risk of bio-invaders?

Legislators and scientists say Homeland Security isn't doing enough to keep US borders safe -- from pests, that is

By | May 16, 2007

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) isn't protecting US borders from agricultural pests and invasive species, and should transfer responsibility of border patrol back to the US Department of Agriculture, say farmers, environmental groups, and legislators. "There's an obvious need for attention to thugs and drugs, but that sometimes means that the bugs are not paid attention to," said Bob Ehart, animal and plant health safeguarding coordinator at the American Nursery & Landscaping Association, a Washington, DC-based lobbying group. "You don't hire policeman when you want to get rid of termites in your house, and it's the same thing here," noted Tim Male, a scientist at Environmental Defense. AN&LA and ED are among 22 groups backing a bill Senators Dianne Feinstein and Dick Durbin introduced in March that would move responsibility for agricultural inspections from DHS back to the US Department of Agriculture. The bill is currently before the Committee on Homeland Security and Border Affairs. The Homeland Security Act of 2002 transferred responsibility for agricultural inspections from the US Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to DHS, based on the assumption that putting agricultural inspections, immigration, and customs under one roof would improve coordination and security. The system under APHIS wasn't perfect, but when the baton passed to the DHS, critics say the ensuing confusion caused experienced inspectors to quit and left many posts unfilled. Agency representatives say transferring border patrol back to the USDA would only create more problems. Efforts are underway to improve coordination between APHIS, which continues to develop regulations and determine what can and can't come over the border, and the DHS's Customs and Border Patrol, which enforces these regulations, APHIS spokesperson Andrea McNally told The Scientist. "We're afraid that a transition of the functions back would disrupt identifying needed improvements and making those improvements," she said. The DHS did not respond to a request for an interview. No one interviewed for this article would lay the blame for a specific instance of agricultural pest or species invasion on the DHS, but critics say they fear passing inspections to the DHS made borders more vulnerable. In December 2006, an equine herpesvirus detected in Florida, thought to have entered the US via New York in a shipment of horses from Europe, nearly wiped out the state's racing industry. Last year, California's Fresno County experienced its first fruit fly outbreak, costing about $1 million. The pest involved, the peach fruit fly native to Asia, likely snuck across the border via fruit someone carried into the country. A Government Accountability Office report released last year backed critics' concerns. The report found that the DHS has experienced problems in financial management, as well as poor communication and coordination between APHIS and DHS's Customs and Border Patrol. Importantly, the agency has cut back on inspections and interceptions at some ports -- since the DHS took over, inspection rates fell 21.4% in San Francisco and 12.7% in Miami, for example. The GAO report also noted that the DHS does not inspect commercial aircraft, vessels, or truck cargo. After the transfer, "if you can imagine the problems, they developed," said Phyllis Windle, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists who directs the group's invasive species work. Windle was one of more than 120 people who wrote to President George W. Bush asking him not to put the DHS in charge of guarding borders from pests. But some experts are less critical of the DHS's performance. Jacqueline Fletcher, a distinguished professor of plant pathology at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater and current chair of the American Phytopathological Society's Public Policy Board, said she believed DHS is making a serious effort to improve agricultural inspections. (The APS received a $100,000 grant from DHS in 2003 to hold a national workshop on crop biosecurity.) Fletcher said she was "impressed" by "plans and strategies" DHS has developed to cope with problems when she and her colleagues visited the agency in March. "With time, as these initiatives are implemented, we will be able to determine if additional gaps and needs remain and how those might be addressed," she told The Scientist. Anne Harding Links within this article: J. Woodall, "Space invaders are here," The Scientist, May 2006. "DHS Announces Border Security Reorganization," February 1, 2003. American Nursery & Landscape Association Environmental Defense Senate Bill S 887 Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) H. Black, "Invasive species efforts faulted," The Scientist, October 29, 2002. Homeland Security: Management and Coordination Problems Increase Vulnerability of U.S. Agriculture to Foreign Pests and Disease, May 2006. Union of Concerned Scientists M. Wenner, "The war against war metaphors," The Scientist, February 16, 2007. Jacqueline Fletcher American Phytopathological Society

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