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Container-Weighing Rule: And You Put the Load Right On ... Who?

Just who's responsible for weighing that ocean container? After several years of thrashing out a rule to combat the problem of misdeclared weights, regulators and rulemaking bodies still can't seem to agree.

So they discovered, on a panel at the Journal of Commerce's 16th annual Trans-Pacific Maritime (TPM) Conference in Long Beach, Calif. The revelation appeared to come as a surprise to panelists and audience alike.

The topic under discussion was a new regulation, to take effect on July 1, on reporting the gross mass of containers loaded aboard ships. It was promulgated by the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), with implementing guidelines drawn up by the International Maritime Organization (IMO). SOLAS is an international treaty that sets standards for the construction and operation of merchant ships and equipment. IMO is an arm of the United Nations that provides a governing framework for multiple treaties and conventions related to the maritime trade.

Many shippers assumed they had been burdened with a new legal responsibility that would be tough to fulfill: supplying the verified weight of the cargo, including the weight of the container itself. It was the latter bit of data that has proved to be a point of contention.

No one questions the need for accurate container weighing. Failure to declare proper weight has led to vessel delays, incorrect stowage plans, collapsed container stacks, boxes lost overboard, damage to ships and equipment, and even the death of workers, according to Christopher Koch, senior adviser and former chief executive officer of the World Shipping Council. WSC represents the liner shipping sector in its dealings with global policymakers and other industry groups.

Carriers first attempted to address the problem of misdeclared or mis-packed goods through a voluntary initiative. In 2008, WSC and the International Chamber of Shipping (ISC) issued a set of industry guidelines for stuffing containers accurately, and providing verified weight. They called on terminal operators to confirm the weight of a container upon entry to the facility, prior to stowage aboard ship.

But accidents continued to occur, with the voluntary guidelines showing “no discernible effect,” said Koch. This despite the fact that the SOLAS convention has required shippers to provide accurate weight for years. So WSC proposed a binding amendment to SOLAS that mandates the verified weighing of every container presented to the marine terminal, as a condition for loading.

Shippers would have two options for providing the required information, Koch said. They could either supply the full weight of the packed container at the conclusion of stuffing, or they could weigh the contents and add on the container’s tare weight (the weight of the empty box) to the total.

One way or the other, though, it was the shipper’s responsibility to provide the container’s verified gross mass, or VGM. So said Koch, who was adamant that shippers, terminal operators and carriers will be all on the hook for that data on July 1.

Then Rear Adm. Paul Thomas, assistant commandant for prevention policy with the U.S. Coast Guard, spoke up. He voiced a sharply different interpretation of the SOLAS weight certification amendment, insisting that shippers have no additional legal responsibility for providing VGM, and have in fact been in compliance with the existing SOLAS rule since it was adopted in 1994. (Shippers are only required to provide accurate gross weight of the cargo, not the container.) Any further response by shippers to the SOLAS amendment would amount only to a change in “business practice,” to conform with the regulatory requirement being borne by the carrier, Thomas said.

The U.S. Coast Guard performs the role of upholding SOLAS in the U.S., for all ships engaged in international voyages while in U.S. waters. It has no authority over domestic shippers, said Thomas, and has “nothing to do with shippers’ internal operations.”

Cue a sigh of relief from shippers, who thought they were being made responsible for information – the accurate weight of an empty container – that they simply didn’t have. So for shippers, according to the Coast Guard, it’s business as usual: they provide the weight of the cargo, the carrier attaches the tare weight to the submission, and the combined weight is relayed to the terminal operator to create the VGM. The carrier might require the shipper to periodically confirm the accuracy of its declared cargo weights, perhaps within a service contract, but that’s up to the parties involved – in other words, a “business practice,” not a regulatory mandate.

A statement issued after the panel by the Agriculture Transportation Coalition applauded Adm. Thomas’s interpretation of the SOLAS amendment. According to the shippers’ group, it will “avoid unnecessary disruption and delay to the export supply chain, competitive disadvantage for U.S. exporters with suppliers elsewhere (such as Brazil), and expense in new software for all components.”

AgTc added that there’s no need “to impose the strange new requirement that the exporter tell the ocean carrier how much the carrier’s own equipment weighs.”

Koch professed shock at Adm. Thomas’s statement. He claimed that the U.S. signed off on a regulation that places equal responsibility for the VGM on shippers, terminal operators and carriers. Moreover, he asked why the U.S. Coast Guard even bothered to co-sponsor the implementation guidelines as developed by IMO. “The legal obligation that is left after the admiral’s interpretation makes no sense,” he said. “It’s a completely empty process.”

WSC followed up the panel with a statement of its own, asking the U.S. Coast Guard to “reconsider and reverse” its position. But that seems unlikely to happen at this point. It’s a rare case when regulatory partners can’t agree on what they’ve done. But shippers, for once, appear to have dodged a bullet.

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