WASHINGTON — The U.S. Coast Guard Thursday gave its stamp of approval to two alternative methods for obtaining certified container weights to comply with new international regulations: one proposed by agricultural shippers and another proposed by the South Carolina Ports Authority.
The move paves an easier path for exporters, particularly agriculture shippers, but it’s not yet certain how container terminals and carriers will respond individually. The announcement from the USCG, the U.S. agency tasked with implementing the SOLAS amendment, comes just 62 days before the rule takes effect July 1.
“That statement may trigger some further consideration by terminal operators about their policies on providing SOLAS-compliant container weights using their existing scales,” John Butler, president and CEO of the World Shipping Council, said in a statement Friday.
In a letter sent to the International Maritime Organization, the USCG repeated its stance that there are multiple ways to meet the IMO's new SOLAS rule mandating no container shall be allowed to board a vessel without an accompanying verified gross mass, or VGM. Shippers, carriers, terminals and maritime associations have outlined multiple acceptable methods for providing VGMs to carriers, the agency said in a statement Thursday.
“A couple examples are: (1) the terminal weighs the container, and when duly authorized, verifies the VGM on behalf of the shipper, and (2) the shipper and carrier reach agreement whereby the shipper verifies the weight of the cargo, dunnage and other securing material, and the container’s tare weight is provided and verified by the carrier.”
The first method is one that was originally floated by the SCPA. The authority announced in February that it would be willing to weigh containers on site in order to help shippers comply with the new IMO rule — making the Southeast port the first and only U.S. port to do so to date.
Under the plans that Jim Newsome, SCPA president and CEO, has drawn up and circulated to customers, the Port of Charleston would offer to weigh export containers with its weigh bridges currently used to comply with existing Occupational Health and Safety Administration rules. The cost to the shipper will be $25 per container.
Newsome has repeated on a number of occasions that the service is not significantly different from the operations and procedures already in place, due to OSHA regulations.
“This practice has occurred for over 20 years and represents what can legitimately be called a ‘best practice’ in the safe loading of vessels in the U.S.,” Newsome told JOC.com.
More controversial, however, is the second method that the USGC outlined in its statement Thursday.
That method, dubbed the “rational” method among certain shippers, has been a matter of considerable debate in recent months.
Under the so-called “rational” method proposed by the Agriculture Transportation Coalition, U.S. exporters would certify the weight of their cargo and packing materials, while container lines would certify the weight of the containers that they own, control and manage. The liners would then combine the two weights to create a VGM that is submitted to the terminal operator before loading.
AgTC has argued that the method takes into consideration that shippers cannot and should not be held liable for the weight of the container itself, which they neither own, lease nor operate.
But the group and its proposed method have met pushback, from the likes of APL and the Ocean Carrier Equipment Management Association, or OCEMA, which has explicitly said it will not accept VGMs obtained via the “rational” method.
In a handbook released just last week, APL said the IMO law does not allow the carrier to add the tare weight of the container to cargo weights provided by shippers to obtain a VGM.
The USCG’s statement Thursday does not have any effect on the guidance provided by either APL or OCEMA. The U.S. agency has said itself that the IMO regulation should be handled as a “business practice” instead of through regulatory enforcement.
That being so, individual carriers can stipulate in their business agreements with shippers that they will or will not accept a certain method. However, the USCG's position simply states that carriers are allowed to permit any of the multiple acceptable methods for providing VGMs to carriers that have been proposed — so long as a VGM is provided using certified scales.
And the agency does say in its statement that all presently certified container-weighing equipment now in use in the states should allow U.S. exporters to comply with the SOLAS regulation.
“For the purposes of determining the VGM of a container, any equipment currently being used to comply with federal or state laws, including the Intermodal Safe Container Transportation Act and the container weight requirements … are acceptable for the purpose of complying with SOLAS,” the agency said.
It was this detail that the WSC said may spark future debate in the shipping industry.
WSC’s Butler said the announcement itself “is consistent with the Coast Guard’s prior statements and does not break any new ground. What is of interest is the Coast Guard’s statement that container weighing equipment being used today to meet other regulatory requirements is acceptable for SOLAS purposes.”
The council, which represents 90 percent of global container ship capacity and was a key player in the drafting of the SOLAS amendment, did not say how it felt the industry would respond.
AgTC Friday applauded the USCG's announcement, saying in a statement that the news “frees individual ocean carriers to develop, in concert with their customers, means of compliance that make economic and operational sense for both.”
The group did point out that the agency’s statement does not require carriers to act independently in their own interests. “However, the AgTC strongly encourages them to do so, and remains available to facilitate such dialogue.”