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WASHINGTON – The military must end the "wasteful practice" of paying hundreds of millions of dollars in late fees to shipping companies for failing to return containers on time, three U.S. senators said in a letter to the Pentagon.

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., citing a story in USA TODAY that the Pentagon has spent $720 million on late fees in the past 10 years, also asked Ashton Carter, undersecretary at the Pentagon, to report on progress made in bringing down shipping costs.

Signing the letter with Carper, who chairs the Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, were Republican Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Scott Brown of Massachusetts.

"For the Department of Defense to waste hundreds of millions of scarce taxpayer dollars as a result of late fees and poor contracting is unacceptable," Carper said.

The large metal boxes are packed with equipment, transported by ship to war zones and moved to bases on trucks. Troops use them for storage, shelter and building material.

Shipping companies charge the government daily "container detention fees" after the grace period ends for the box to be returned. If the military fails to return a container, a rent-to-own arrangement requires it to pay the shipper nearly $7,400 for a 20-foot container worth $3,200.

The military command for the Middle East reported spending about $1 million on late fees in November, most of it for overdue containers in Afghanistan.

The U.S. Transportation Command responded that the military has decreased detention fees by moving cargo faster and keeping better inventories. It also has improved its shipping contract, which will go into effect in June.

In their letter, the senators asked Carter, the No. 2 official at the Pentagon, to report by Jan. 30 on progress made to rein in late fees.

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