A top United States Coast Guard officer says the agency is not planning any special effort to enforce new regulations having to do with shipping container weights.
On July 1, an amendment to the International Maritime Organization’s Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) convention will go into effect, requiring shippers to certify and submit the verified gross mass of containers before they are loaded on to vessels.
The new requirement has created a great deal of concern and distress by shippers, to the degree that earlier this week, one group of shippers, the Agriculture Transportation Coalition said it was concerned the rule would “create major turmoil at the marine terminals and a very significant impediment to U.S. exports."
AgTC even suggested a possible Congressional inquiry into how the IMO, an arm of the United Nations of which the U.S. has been a member since 1950, creates conventions and “the means by which the United States can be bound, and how this rule was adopted without US exporter or importer notice or input, or consideration of impact on the U.S. economy.”
“When people ask me about guidance and enforcement my answer to that, is we intend to enforce this the way we always have,” Rear Admiral Paul Thomas, assistant commandant for prevention policy at the U.S. Coast Guard, told American Shipper
. “And quite honestly we haven’t needed to conduct a robust enforcement.”
Thomas said he will attend a “listening session” to be held on Feb. 18 at 2 p.m. at the Federal Maritime Commission offices in Washington D.C. in order to “understand better what the industry thinks has changed here."
Both Thomas and the World Shipping Council, a trade organization that represents container liner companies, in a point-by-point rebuttal to the AgTC position paper
, noted that there is an existing requirement in SOLAS that prior to loading cargo on a ship, shippers provide “a general description of the cargo, the gross mass of the cargo or of the cargo units, and any relevant special properties of the cargo” and that “the shipper shall ensure that the gross mass of such units is in accordance with the gross mass declared on the shipping documents.”
WSC also notes Customs requires shippers to provide the gross mass of the goods as well as net mass excluding dunnage for advance manifest reporting purposes.
According to WSC, lack of enforcement of the requirement to provide the
gross mass of cargo units and the lack of definition as to what the term
“ensure” actually embodies "help explain the background for the IMO
decision to amend SOLAS" with the new verified gross mass requirements.
Thomas says the amendments that go into effect July 1 don't actually change any shipper requirements, but instead "clarify how the requirements will be met.”
AgTC, for example, called the amendments "a dramatic change from current practices. Currently the shipper is responsible to accurately report the weight of its cargo. The shipper does not own, control, or maintain the containers which are owned/leased by the carriers."
But according to Thomas, “There is an existing requirement that’s been in place for decades that shippers provide the gross mass of the shipping unit, which means the cargo and the container on the declared shipping document.” He added the regulation now uses the word “container” since containers have been in use so long.
“The amendment simply clarifies how that gross mass will be determined, it introduces the term ‘verified gross mass,’ which is just a change in kind of the art of how it’s talked about, and it introduces a requirement that the shipper sign the document with the verified gross mass. So although there are some changes, the requirement to provide the gross mass of the cargo unit is not a new one.
“I am totally happy to accept however they have been doing it for the last three decades,” he said. “And if that means that in the past the shippers provided part of the information and the ocean carrier the other part, or whatever, however they’ve done it.
"The clarification that’s in the new regulation says there’s two ways that you can verify the gross mass. If the U.S. shippers have a different way that they’ve been doing it, what matters is that the master has the information that he or she needs to load the ship safely."
Thomas said he thinks much of the confusion surrounding the "new" requirements lie not with the regulations themselves, but with enforcement.
“Although the SOLAS requirement puts the burden on the shipper, the SOLAS enforcement options can’t touch a shipper," he said. "So if for whatever reason we feel like the verified gross mass is not accurate — I’m not sure what would trigger that — but if we found that it wasn’t accurate, the enforcement action would be either to require the ship to offload that container if it was on the ship, before they sailed, or to just put a hold on that container in the yard until the verified gross mass is known.
"But that has always been the enforcement options on these things. I think that’s widely misunderstood."
“I think the other thing that’s widely misunderstood is that there are a number of other SOLAS requirements that require the master of the ship to understand the weight of his cargo because the master of the ship under SOLAS Chapter 2 is responsible for the stability of the vessel and is responsible for all the information required to assess the stability of the vessel and that would include the cargo weight including the container weight," he added. "And then there is another requirement under the International Safety Management Code that also requires the ship operator to have all the information needed in order to operate the ship safely.”
“So all those things combined would lead you to conclude that for years this hasn’t been a problem, so that is why we are going to hold this listening session so I can understand better what the industry thinks has changed here.”
Thomas was also quick to point out that it's more likely that positive reinforcement — i.e. figuring out how this can help the parties involved — will bring about meaningful change, rather than punitive action.
“The best solution here is a business arrangement, it’s not aggressive enforcement by the Coast Guard for a couple of reasons. One, is that enforcement would be mostly against the ship operator, and two, it’s not going to help us move the cargo that we need to move.”
Thomas says he has been told there was very little debate on the container weight rule when it was adopted by the IMO, which he believes reflects the fact that the body is dominated by ship operators and not shippers.
The operators are ultimately “responsible for the safe operation of the ship and you can’t operate a ship safely without knowing the gross mass of the cargo that you’re putting on.”
During inspections of exports, he says the Coast Guard will look at hazardous material, and “we’ll probably look the verified gross mass on the shipping documents. But I would tell you unless there is a real reason for us to suspect that that just can’t be accurate we won’t be weighing our containers.”
“Again, this is a business arrangement that I believe the market needs to drive good behavior here."
"If a particular master were to call us and say, I have a number of containers where they haven’t provided VGM or I don’t think VGM is accurate then we would respond to that, but again the enforcement action in that case would be simply to put a hold on those containers until the VGM is established.”
He says “flag states,” the country where a ship is registered, are responsible for ensuring that a vessel meets SOLAS requirements.
“Unless we had good reason to believe that the flag state hadn’t done what they’re supposed to do with regard to compliance with this regulation, we wouldn’t be looking at it.”
In its rebuttal to the AgTC position paper, the WSC noted that shipper groups such as the Global Shippers Forum and National Industrial Transportation League supported the final regulations and that shipper input is why the regulation can be met by either driving a container truck onto a scale and subtracting the weight of chassis and cab or weighing the items being put into a container and packing materials and adding it to the tare weight of the container.
WSC disputes that implementation of the SOLAS rule will impose new costs or disrupt the flow of cargo through ports.
If costs are higher "because estimation, not weighing, is currently being used to provide the weight of the packed container to the carrier, then this confirms that the current SOLAS requirement have not been effective and need to be complemented" with the new amendments, the group said.