In a move U.S. ocean exporters said relieves them of the sole burden of certifying the total weight of a container, cargo, and packing material before the box could be laden aboard a vessel, the U.S. Coast Guard said it's acceptable for other parties in the supply chain to help shippers determine and verify container weights and signed off on two approaches under which the exchange of equipment and data can occur.
In a letter sent to the London-based International Maritime Organization (IMO) and disclosed today, the Coast Guard said its enforcement regulations allow multiple entities to "work in combination with the shipper" to certify the weight of export containers. The agency added that stakeholders can be flexible in determining what steps should be taken to meet the July 1 deadline to comply with provisions of an IMO-administered "Safety of Lives at Sea" (SOLAS) treaty requiring shippers to verify the gross mass of a box before it is loaded aboard ship. The amendment, pushed through in 2014 by global container lines that were concerned a vessel with illegally overloaded containers could be damaged or sink, has the force of law for all 170 IMO-member nations.
One of the Coast Guard's acceptable approaches involves a port or terminal weighing the box, dunnage, and cargo, and verifying the weight on behalf of the shipper; that has been suggested by the Port of Charleston, which, like other U.S. ports, already weighs containers to meet Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) rules. Jim Newsome, CEO of the South Carolina Ports Authority, told a local paper earlier this month that the port could easily supply container-weight data to meet SOLAS requirements since it is already doing so, and that an informal study found its weighing method was within 1.2 percent of the containers' actual weights—well within what the international maritime community deems an acceptable margin for error.
The other approach calls for shippers to provide an accurate weight of the cargoes; the carrier or terminal operator would furnish the container's tare weight. The Agriculture Transportation Coalition, a group of U.S. agricultural and forest-products exporters, supports such a scenario. The group said it has no problem certifying the weight of the cargoes because it already performs the task. However, it said it is unreasonable to require exporters to certify the weight of an empty container, because it neither owns nor maintains the equipment.
The group hailed the Coast Guard's action, saying it calls for collective effort to certify container weights and opens the door for multiple market-driven solutions instead of a one-size-fits-all approach advocated by the Ocean Carrier Equipment Management Association (OCEMA), a group of 19 steamship lines that last month published what it labeled best practices for shippers to submit weight-verification data. The recommendations allowed data to be electronically transmitted either in Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) format through third-party pOréals like INTTRA and GT Nexus, or via the carrier's own pOréal. For e-bookings when the receiving cutoff time is the close of the business day, the data cutoff would be noon that day, according to the OCEMA document.
Though OCEMA said the recommendations weren't binding, it said that if a carrier does not receive the data prior to a specific cutoff time, the container will be "sidelined" until the shipper can arrange for the verification. Any issues arising from the shipper's failure to provide data in a timely manner would be hashed out in accordance with language in the carrier's tariffs and service contracts, according to the OCEMA document.
OCEMA officials were unavailable to comment on the Coast Guard letter. OCEMA noted on its web site that individual carriers can "deviate" from the suggested practices as they "deem appropriate to meet operational or other business requirements."
Terminals operating at such facilities as the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the nation's busiest port complex, have put exporters on notice that they will not load boxes without documents verifying a container's gross mass, and in some instances may not allow the equipment in the gate.
The Coast Guard communiqué "frees individual ocean carriers to develop, in concert with their customers, means of compliance that make economic and operational sense for both," the Coalition said in a statement today. Noting the agency's action doesn't require carriers to act independently, the coalition urged carriers to do so, adding that it "remains available to facilitate such dialogue."