International mail could be disrupted after the first of the year as deadlines haven’t been met as CBP and USPS try to comply with the STOP Act that aims to stem the flow of opioids like fentanyl into the United States, agency officials told senators.
In 2018, the Senate Homeland Security Subcommittee on Permanent Investigations issued a report detailing how online drug dealers based in China were exploiting a loophole in international mail that allowed packages to be shipped into the United States without advance electronic data (AED) through the U.S. Postal Service.
“Our report described how, during our investigation, subcommittee staff emailed with six websites located in China that advertised fentanyl for sale on the open internet,” said Chairman Rob Portman (R-Ohio) at a hearing last Thursday. “When asked, all six of these websites told us they preferred to ship through the international arm of the Postal Service because of this loophole. In fact, one of the websites actually guaranteed delivery of this deadly fentanyl into our communities, but only if the fentanyl was shipped through the Postal Service. So our own federal government was complicit in providing this poison into our communities.”
Based on the recommendations in that report, in October 2018 the Synthetics Trafficking and Overdose Prevention Act, or STOP Act, was passed by Congress, requiring AED on all packages entering the U.S. beginning in 2021. The Postal Service and CBP submitted a joint strategic plan for implementation to Congress in March 2019.
“The STOP Act required CBP to finalize regulations regarding how packages would be dealt with that had no AED, by October 2019. Those regulations weren’t even submitted to the Office of Management and Budget for review until August of 2020,” Portman said. “We were told those regulations have now been passed back to the Customs and Border Protection, CBP, people with comments, but we still don’t know when they will be final.”
The legislation required USPS to collect AED on 70 percent of all international packages and 100 percent of packages from China by the end of 2018, but in January 2019 those numbers were only 57 percent and 76 percent, respectively.
By January of this year, 67 percent of international packages coming into the U.S. had AED, but during the COVID-19 pandemic that has slipped to 54 percent as of October. When USPS must begin rejecting packages without AED as of Jan. 1, 2021, that could mean the Postal Service turns away about 4 million pieces of mail a month. “I can’t imagine other countries won’t retaliate by blocking at least some of the packages that the Postal Service sends abroad,” said Ranking Member Tom Carper (D-Del.).
“In my opinion, the Postal Service, and come January 20, the new administration will have been put in an impossible position. And this is all coming at a time when trends with respect to how drugs like fentanyl are getting here are changing,” Carper said. “According to CBP, significantly more drugs may be coming through land ports of entry along our southern border. And at the same time, seizures in the international mail have declined.”
Robert Cintron, vice president of logistics at the United States Postal Service, said seizures of opioids in international mail have dropped 93 percent this year, with an increase in fentanyl and other drugs coming into the United States via the Mexico border.
“From fiscal year 2017 to January, 2020, the AED percentage trend steadily increase. But AED progress reversed as the global pandemic impacted international shipments. Once international mail recovers, we expect AED will resume its upward trajectory,” Cintron said.
“We have made strides in AED compliance but on January 1, 21 days from now, it is probable and foreseeable that a portion of international packages will lack AED. This places us in a difficult position. If inbound shipments are not accompanied by AED, we face the prospect of disrupting inbound mail,” he added. “On the other hand, applying alternative procedures may require burdensome and labor-intensive procedures.”
Cintron said USPS looks to CBP “for guidance on whether it can afford remedial measures.”
Thomas Overacker, executive director of cargo and conveyance security in the Office of Field Operations at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, called AED “the backbone of CBP’s targeting efforts” that can “effectively interdict illicit goods, segment risk and facilitate legitimate trade.”
In fiscal year 2018, CBP seized 91.2 pounds pounds of fentanyl in incoming mail from China, compared to just over a pound in fiscal year 2020. The amount of fentanyl seized at ports of entry on the southwest border rose 54 percent from fiscal year 2019 to 2020, while the amount seized between ports of entry increased 258 percent.
“Nevertheless, China continues to present a unique set of challenges. It remains a major source country of chemical precursors, narcotic manufacturing equipment such as pill presses, other controlled substances, fraudulent documents, and counterfeit merchandise,” Overacker said. “The explosive growth of e-commerce and direct to consumer shipping, especially directly from foreign sellers, has resulted in exponential growth in the number of actors in the international supply chain.”
Overacker said CBP is “confident” that the regulation requiring AED for international mail “will be published soon.” The interim rule required USPS to collect a dollar processing fee for inbound express mail service and give half of that to CBP to enhance capabilities at international mail facilities.
“CBP, DHS Science and Technology, ONDCP and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service sponsored a contest called the Opioid Prize Challenge, offering a $1.55 million prize to develop a solution that could detect minute quantities of opioids and other specific contraband in the mail stream,” he said. “The prize winner was announced, last December, and CBP has awarded contracts to purchase and deploy this technology as part of an overall strategy to modernize mail processing capabilities, including a multimillion-dollar renovation for our international mail facility at the JFK International Airport.”
Portman chided CBP for being more than a year late on the deadline to finalize regulations on the refusal of packages. “There is no good solution, thanks to the reality that you do not have the regulations in effect and the reality that we have not been successful in requiring 100 percent AED, as required by law,” the senator said.
Cintron said that “absent any alternatives, the Postal Service is prepared to refuse any of the shipments coming into the country” come Jan. 1. “There will be some disruption, but we are, absolutely, prepared to do it,” he said.
“For us, AED is what we use to assess risk,” Overacker said. “Provided that the volumes are manageable, we think we can set, we can mitigate risk by doing enhanced scanning, use of canines or even physical inspection.”
“But that would be something that’s on the ground at the international service enters and our international mail facilities, for those personnel to determine what is manageable volume, depending on the, what the environment is like, coming January 1st,” he added. “And we will have to make day-to -day decisions on that, based on the volume of mail without AED or the volume of mail that is co-mingled.”