WASHINGTON — Lawmakers, responding to pleas from industry and foreign governments, have tentatively agreed to block the Obama administration from requiring that air shipments of lithium batteries be treated as hazardous cargo because of the danger of fires during flight.
The deal came in talks on a long-term funding bill for the Federal Aviation Administration, Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., told The Associated Press. The bill will effectively block new battery-shipment rules by insisting the U.S. follow international standards, which are less stringent, said Rahall, top Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Pilot unions said the international standards don’t provide enough safety and are weaker than rules the administration proposed nearly two years ago but never made final. The unions and the National Transportation Safety Board for several years have sought new rules on air shipments of the batteries to prevent fires that can cause air crashes and deaths.
“We’re very concerned that unless this issue is addressed we’ll continue to see accidents and we’ll continue to see fatalities,” said Mark Rogers, who heads the Air Line Pilots Association’s committee on hazardous cargo.
The U.S. shouldn’t “adopt an existing international standard on lithium batteries that’s generally recognized as inadequate,” Robert Travis, president of Independent Pilots Association, which represents UPS pilots, said in a statement.
The FAA bill “is an opportunity for the U.S. to lead by setting a higher standard on the carriage of lithium batteries,” Travis said.
A fire broke out five years ago in cargo containing lithium batteries and other goods on a United Parcel Service plane, forcing an emergency landing in Philadelphia. No one was killed, but one of the pilots said he was able to escape with seconds to spare. The cause of the fire wasn’t conclusively determined, but batteries were suspected.
Last year, another UPS plane with a fire raging on board, and carrying thousands of lithium batteries, crashed near Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, killing both pilots. The accident is still under investigation, but preliminary reports indicate investigators have focused much of their attention on the batteries.
The use of rechargeable lithium-ion and non-rechargeable lithium-metal batteries has soared since the late 1990s. Millions of products from laptops to cellphones to watches contain the batteries. And, in an age of increasing globalization of trade, those products are often shipped by air to and from the United States and other countries.
But the batteries can catch fire if they are damaged, exposed to high temperatures or packaged incorrectly.Lithium-ion battery fires can reach 1,100 degrees, close to the melting point of aluminum, a key material in airplane construction. Lithium-metal battery fires are far hotter, capable of reaching 4,000 degrees.
The administration proposed regulations that would have threated lithium batteries and goods containing the batteries as hazardous materials requiring special labeling and training of workers who package and handle them.
But they were opposed by a broad swath of powerful industries, including battery-makers, electronics manufacturers and retailers, cargo airlines, and at least a half dozen foreign governments who said they would disrupt international trade. The opponents said the regulations would cost them hundreds of millions of dollars in added packaging, paperwork and employee training. The rechargeable battery industry alone says the rules would cost more than $1 billion in the first year.
Opponents of the proposed rules turned for help to Congress, where House Republicans passed an FAA funding bill that requires the U.S. to follow standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organization, a UN agency, effectively blocking the rules. The Senate did not include the measure in its version of the funding bill, but under the tentative deal reached Friday, the House-Senate compromise bill would include it.
Kara Ross, a spokeswoman for United Parcel Service, said the cargo carrier wasn’t aware of the agreement reached by lawmakers but supports the House provision.
A spokesman for PRBA-The Rechargeable Battery Association declined to comment.
Besides Rahall, the other lawmakers involved in negotiations were Rep. John Mica, chairman of the House committee, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and Kay Bailey Hutchison, senior Republican member of the Senate committee.