The keys to safe shipment of batteries

June 10, 2011 - via The Hill

Attention to the U.S. government’s failure to promptly update regulation of the air transportation of lithium batteries is well deserved, but the criticism of recent congressional efforts to address the issue is misdirected. Virtually all experts agree that the key to effective regulation is consistency. But the United States has dawdled for more than two years to bring our regulations up to the more stringent international standards. Congress should act now to assure that this is done.

The world forum for developing air transportation safety regulations is the multi-government International Civil Aviation Organization Dangerous Goods Panel (DGP). It plays a pivotal role in assuring, on a global basis, the safe transportation of air freight.

In 2009, the DGP strengthened its standards governing the air transport of lithium batteries and products powered by these batteries, including laptop computers, cell phones, digital cameras as well as advanced medical devices such as pacemakers and defibrillators and critical military equipment such as night vision goggles and chemical agent detectors. The DGP mandated more stringent packaging standards, more accurate and descriptive labeling for packages containing lithium batteries and prohibited the shipment of damaged or defective batteries.

The battery industry fully supported these new requirements, which exceed existing U.S. Department of Transportation safety standards. Despite playing a significant role in drafting the DGP standards, the DOT has never adopted them. In contrast, virtually every industrialized nation and almost all of America’s most important trading partners have done so.

Instead, the DOT proposed its own unique lithium battery shipping, handling and storage rules last year. They are different from the DGP’s, but not better than the regulations already in place around the world. The DOT’s proposals would mean confusion. And confusion jeopardizes safety.

“The solution proposed in the [proposed DOT rules] may not solve the problem it is intended to fix,” a bipartisan group of 28 House members wrote in a letter to DOT Secretary Ray LaHood last year. “Billions of lithium batteries have been safely transported as air cargo in the last 20 years, and it is our understanding that safety issues have arisen only when shippers did not comply with basic packaging requirements,” they accurately stated.  For that reason, the legislators urged the DOT to emphasize enforcement generally and compliance with the ICAO DGP rules specifically.

Consider this: More than 81 percent of laptops, 67 percent of cell phones and 69 percent of lithium batteries used to power consumer electronics products are shipped into the United States by air. But there has never been a reported safety incident involving properly packaged products!  The handful of incidents that have occurred have involved scofflaws, noncompliance and inadequate governmental enforcement of existing, international rules. New, different U.S. rules won’t fix those problems.

What the DOT’s different regulatory approach will do, however, is impose severe supply-chain disruptions, discourage use of U.S. carriers, delay shipments of life-saving medical equipment, hinder support for our armed services, prohibit consumers from shipping electronic products and lithium batteries by air and produce untold job losses. Major U.S. trading partners—the European Union, Japan and Korea—have urged the U.S. government to abandon its “unilateral” approach to battery safety.

The House included language in the Federal Aviation Reauthorization bill to ensure that U.S. lithium battery regulations are promptly brought up to date with standards already in place around the world. The Senate reauthorization bill did not. As a result, the battery issue is now under consideration by a House-Senate conference. We urge senators, Democrats and Republicans alike, to ignore the misinformation that abounds on this issue and approve a bill that will ensure the DOT brings U.S. lithium battery regulations to the same strict standard already in effect around the world. And we also urge that, having done so, Congress, the FAA and its sister agencies turn their attention to assuring that all shippers, where ever they may be, comply with the law.

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Author:George Kerchner