The U.S. Department of Transportation has issued a final rule establishing new standards for air cargo shipments of various types of lithium batteries, including packaging requirements and safeguards for power cells that have been damaged or are headed for recycling.
Developed by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration in conjunction with the Federal Aviation Administration, the rule largely seeks to align U.S. shipping requirements with those adopted last year by the International Civil Aviation Organization, an arm of the United Nations.
The U.S. rule will become effective early next year, though it follows years of debate among regulators, battery manufacturers and U.S. pilot groups. Previously, the battery industry joined forces with makers of computers, cellphones and other portable electronic devices to block more-stringent shipping standards
The DOT rule was immediately praised by a leading trade association, the Rechargeable Battery Association, which on Thursday called it "the culmination of a 4½ years effort to enhance safety by harmonizing" U.S. and international rules.
The final rule, however, stops short of imposing certain limits on how many batteries or cells can be carried on a U.S. cargo aircraft, which were advocated by pilot union leaders. Pilot groups also wanted tougher requirements about informing pilots of where lithium-battery shipments are placed inside aircraft.
U.S. regulators don't allow any lithium batteries to be shipped in the cargo holds of passenger jets, but many other countries permit such packages.
Controversy over the issue was stoked over the years by a number of cargo aircraft fires suspected of being started or accelerated by bulk shipments of lithium batteries. When such batteries are damaged or develop internal short-circuits, they can end up causing intense fires with high temperatures that are particularly hard to extinguish.
In a release, DOT said it encourages industry to voluntarily comply with the new rule before it goes into effect.
The department also said it adopted different shipping requirements for lithium-ion batteries, which are commonly used to power cellphones, laptops and similar devices, versus lithium-metal batteries, which typically are more powerful and are used in other consumer products and applications.
In early 2013, ICAO closed a loophole that permitted routine air transport of battery bundles weighing up to 22 pounds without any special protective packaging, warning labels or pilot alerts about the location of such shipments. Starting next year, any battery shipment containing more than two lithium-ion batteries will have to comply fully with those detailed ICAO hazardous-goods requirements.
ICAO and postal officials around the world previously agreed to begin cracking down on bulk shipments of batteries, as well as on portable devices containing them, that are sent through the mail.
Potential dangers of lithium batteries have been widely debated among aviation officials since 2006, when a United Parcel Service Inc. DC-8 cargo jet caught fire and was destroyed on landing in Philadelphia. The crew escaped.
After that fire, and again after a burning UPS jumbo jet crashed in Dubai in 2010, U.S. regulators considered tightening rules for handling lithium batteries. But those proposals withered under intense industry and congressional opposition. Companies that make and use the batteries argued the compliance costs would far outweigh the benefits of combating what they described as a minimal risk.
After the final rule was posted on a federal website, the Rechargeable Battery Association said it looked forward to working with DOT if the agency "considers additional measures affecting the transport of lithium batteries."