U.S. Customs inspects first import container here

Spokane Valley company’s year-old container freight station gets first shipment

By Marc Stewart

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers recently performed the first-ever routine inspection of an international cargo container in the Spokane area.

The hour-long inspection took place at the Spokane Valley facility of Inland Empire Distribution Systems Inc.

About a year ago, U.S. Customs approved Inland Empire Distribution as its first “container freight station” here, but the company didn’t attract any cargo containers until last week.

Such stations are authorized to hold freight containers—the big metal boxes that come off ships and are transferred to trucks or rail cars—until they can be inspected by customs officers.

“I sent out 75 notices to brokers that we had this,” says Matthew Ewers, the Spokane Valley company’s director of marketing and sales. “Why they didn’t utilize it (until now), I don’t know. I think the economy had something to do with it. I think now we’ve broken through, more companies will utilize it.”

The first company to do so was Susanna International LLC, a Post Falls-based specialty apparel business that had a cargo container shipped here from Pakistan. U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers carefully searched the container. Normally, the officers are looking for drugs, weapons of mass destruction, and illegal aliens. They didn’t find anything, or anyone hiding behind boxes of clothing.

After passing the inspection, the cargo was trucked to Susanna International, which sells motorcycle apparel to Spokane area retailers.

“It saves me money and it saves me time,” says Shakeel Butt, that company’s coowner. “I expect to have 15 containers shipped from Pakistan the rest of year. I was dealing with Seattle. Then a customs officer mentioned to me that you can have the containers shipped here. Of course I was interested.”

Traditionally, international cargo destined for Eastern Washington, North Idaho, and Western Montana is inspected in Seattle or another port city on the West Coast.

“I think it’s a great plus for the region to be able to clear freight here, instead of waiting in line at Seattle or San Francisco,” says Mike Marshall, port director of the customs office here. “It’s a great deal for Inland Empire Distribution Systems.”

Currently, it can take up to four days for the containers to be inspected once they’re taken off ships, due to congestion at the port, says Marshall. Inland Empire Distribution says once a container arrives here, it will take less than two days to inspect it.

“The advantage is that it adds to the asset base of Spokane,” says Ewers. “It’s another service Spokane offers to new businesses. It’s a catalyst to attracting new business.”

To qualify as a container freight station, companies must comply with a list of requirements, such as having alarm and fire-protection systems, providing a secure area to hold the containers, and passing criminal background checks on both the company and its employees, Marshall says.

“It took about six months to get federal approval,” says Ewers. “We also had to increase security in the container freight station” located in a warehouse it operates in the Spokane Business & Industrial Park, at 3808 N. Sullivan.

When a container arrives at the company, U.S. Customs officers are summoned from the agency’s offices here to conduct the inspection.

Under its agreement with U.S. Customs, the Spokane Valley company will fully or partially unload cargo containers to be inspected. The service is charged to the freight company or importer that’s shipping the container, Ewers says.

Ewers says the average cost to inspect each container will range from $100 to about $600.

“It’s up to U.S. Customs,” Ewers says. “We don’t know if they’re going to take everything off the entire container or not.”

Inland Empire Distribution provides warehousing, freight management, and transportation services. The company occupies about 500,000 square feet of floor space spread among nine buildings in the industrial park. It also has a 240,000-square foot operation in Pasco, Wash.

“The container freight station fits with our business,” says Ewers. “It’s not a money maker. It’s just another service we offer.”