LONG BEACH, California — The SOLAS guidelines on container weight verification that will be implemented from July 1 are not mandatory, U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Paul Thomas told a packed TPM Conference here Tuesday.
“They are not mandatory under SOLAS, they are not mandatory under any U.S. regulation. It says that right on top — these are non-mandatory guidelines,” he said in a panel discussion on the verified gross mass rule.
As far as the Coast Guard was concerned, complying with the VGM rule was a business procedure issue. “SOLAS places no legal obligation on the shipper. It places a legal obligation only on the vessel subject to SOLAS. So if you need to meet that obligation by working on a better business practice with your partners, that’s where you need to focus,” Thomas said.
This was not well received by Christopher Koch, senior advisor and former CEO of the World Shipping Council, who said there was a distinction between commercial practice and regulatory compliance.
“The decision of what is required is not a matter for business discussion, it is not a business practice issue,” he said. “The Coast Guard’s position is that SOLAS regulation does not apply to shippers and require them to provide a signed VGM, and terminals are not required to enforce what the SOLAS regulation says.”
Koch called the Admiral’s comments a “stunning revelation,” considering the IMO guidelines were submitted by a working group shared by the U.S. Coast Guard, and in a paper co-sponsored by the U.S.
“It would have been far better if the U.S. Coast Guard had said this was their view at the time we were all working on this,” he said.
On July 1, a new international rule under the Safety of Life at Sea convention will come into effect, requiring shippers to present a signed cargo weight verification to ocean carriers prior to the containers being loaded a vessel. The rule has created huge uncertainty around the world with the governments of 162 signatories to SOLAS struggling to draw up guidelines on how their respective jurisdictions will police the rule.
It has become an increasingly acrimonious issue in the U.S. with shipper groups such as the Agriculture Transportation Coalition saying they are already in compliance and don’t plan to change the way they operate.
Donna Lemm, vice president of global sales for Mallory Alexander International Logistics and chairman of the AgTC SOLAS working group, said the SOLAS rule did not make a whole lot of sense.
“If the amendment goes ahead as we see it, including tare and no variance, this means total disruption to our agricultural activity,” she said. “But we are going to continue to do what we have been doing. We are going to our carriers to ask how we can work together.
“What we are talking about is continuing to build upon best practices on what we have been doing. As a shipping community, we are saying we are providing gross and net weights today, accurately and to our best ability. What we can’t afford is another VGM field, another EDI (electronic data interchange) program, another database, for information we are already providing,” she said.
One of the concerns Lemm raised was that shippers will be held responsible for the weight of the actual container, something the shipper had no control over. She said the carrier needed to provide the tare weight, not the shipper.
But Marc Bourdon, president of CMA CGM (Americas), said the shipper was not required to certify the weight of the container. “They are required to certify their cargo and the packing around the cargo, but will not have any liability for the tare,” he said.
Bourdon said any variability in the weight of the box would be insignificant, and it would be okay if a container was within a ton of the weight provided. Variations found were usually way above that. “So I don’t think the tare should be a focus to the extent that I am hearing.”
What was clear from the panel discussion is that complying with the SOLAS rule will be achieved through dialogue between the main players in the supply chain and through creativity, rather than trying to stick to the letter of the law.
For instance, Peter Friedman, executive director of AgTC, said the exporter was responsible for the cargo and the carrier for the container, so the carrier could marry those weights themselves without having the exporter weigh the container and provide the VGM.