February 9, 2016

Agriculture, forest-products shipper group urges changes to maritime-container weight rule

Exporters should be responsible for certifying weight of cargoes only, not both goods and the equipment, coalition says.

By DC Velocity Staff

The lobbying group for the nation's agricultural- and forest-product exporters said today that new international maritime rules to take effect July 1 governing how the weight of ocean containers are documented and verified will make life difficult for U.S. exporters unless changes are made to the existing language.

In what is thought to be the first public comment from U.S. shippers on the rule, which appears as an amendment to the International Maritime Organization's (IMO) Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) convention, the Agriculture Transportation Coalition said it is not feasible for a shipper to accurately report the weight of the cargo and the weight of the container it's packed in, especially when it doesn't own, lease, or control the equipment. Currently, shippers are only required to certify the weight of the cargoes. However, the amendment requires shippers to certify the verified gross mass (VGM) of the container, which includes the combined weight of the container and the goods.

The rule, which holds the force of law in the IMO's 171 member countries, prohibits a container from being loaded without a verified VGM signed off on by the shipper. A shipper and terminal operator could be open to massive legal liability if a ship was sunk or damaged and a container was found to not have a VGM. The rule was adopted after concerns that vessels were being damaged at sea by illegally overweight containers.

At the least, the rule in its current form could create "major turmoil" at U.S. marine terminals if containers are barred from being loaded on vessels or are not even allowed into the facility because of the absence of a verifiable VGM, the coalition said.

The group said the rule doesn't account for a weight variance of plus or minus 5 percent, an important issue for agricultural- and forest-product exporters, as their goods often fluctuate in weight during transit. In addition, no mechanism exists to facilitate the transmission of VGM data among various stakeholders.

The coalition said that exporters should only be responsible for certifying the weight of the cargo, and that steamship lines should certify the accurate weight of their containers. It also called for the plus-or-minus-5-percent weight variance, which is currently in effect in the United Kingdom. A list of accepted container weights should be published that assigns a weight to each equipment type, the group said.

The coalition called on the Federal Maritime Commission and the U.S. Coast Guard to convene a working group of all affected businesses. It urged the Coast Guard, which would enforce the rule, to delay implementation until it determined, through a public comment process, that best practices have been developed and that U.S. commerce would not be harmed. It also asked the U.S. not implement the rule until its top 15 trading partners have done the same.

The rule took effect even though it wasn't submitted to Congress or reviewed by any federal agency, the group said.


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