As the industry prepares for the controversial new verified weight rules that go into effect this July, the Port of Charleston is the first U.S. port to say it is willing and game to provide in-terminal weighing services for containers if allowed to do so by the U.S. Coast Guard. In doing so, Charleston is lining up with terminals in Europe and the Mideast that say they will offer weighing services, but is diverging from several U.S. terminals — including arch competitors Savannah and Virginia, which are explicitly saying they will not offer yard equipment to weigh containers on behalf of shippers.
U.S. ports have long weighed containers on site in order to comply with workplace safety regulations, said Jim Newsome, president and CEO of the South Carolina Ports Authority. There is no reason it can’t be a service ports offer to shippers when the International Maritime Organization’s Safety of Life at Sea, or SOLAS, rules take effect July 1, Newsome said.
“I think this could easily represent a best practice that has long been in place, provides accurate weight data and ensures that commerce continues to flow efficiently through our ports,” Newsome told JOC.com on Wednesday.
With several other U.S. terminals taking the exact reverse approach, in other words not allowing in containers without the shipper-provided Verified Gross Mass and not offering weighing services, Newsome said he hopes Charleston can provide a “constructive solution that helps the shipping industry” grapple with the SOLAS amendment. But without any guidance from the U.S. Coast Guard on the matter, Charleston’s proposed “solution” has led to more questions than answers.
The Coast Guard is the agency that implements SOLAS rules in the U.S. as it has jurisdiction over vessels and marine terminals. The Coast Guard, however, could not provide any guidance as to whether Charleston has the appropriate equipment to verify container weights.
The new SOLAS rule requires shippers whose name appears on the bill of lading to verify the gross mass of a packed container when tendering the container to ocean carriers and terminals. They can do this by either weighing a fully packed container, called Method 1, or weighing the cargo, palleting, packaging and securing materials separately and adding it to the tare weight, or unloaded weight, of the container, called Method 2. Each of the 162 countries that are signatories to SOLAS will be tasked with ensuring the gross mass of containers is verified, without which the boxes can legally not be loaded on board a ship.
Few container terminals worldwide are lining up to provide weighing services for shippers, and the Port of Charleston is the only one so far in the U.S. to say it could.
Newsome weighed in on the matter this week, telling JOC.com that his port is fully outfitted with scales capable of weighing containers. With some minor procedural understandings, he said, Charleston could provide a solution to the SOLAS requirement.
The need to weigh cargo has been a longstanding requirement of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Newsome said.
Scales on the Charleston waterfront weigh the gross unit and subtract the tractor weight provided by truck drivers.
“This is our process, we weigh every export container, have done so for years, and these are the weights used by the lines and the stevedores in loading ships, preparing stow plans, etc.,” Newsome told JOC.com.
There is some variability in the process, Newsome added. The amount of fuel on board the tractor when it presents itself to the terminal can be up to 2,000 pounds between full and empty, and there are also minor deviations from the tare weights in containers due to repairs.
However, he said, “this variability should be fairly random and should not add up to much significance.”
There are some “hanging chads,” Newsome said, which would need to be resolved before the port begins to weigh containers for compliance under the new regulations, though.
Charleston’s scales are calibrated, but that does not mean the weights are certified, as required by the new regulations.
Moreover, there remains the question of how shippers will adopt weights as “certified weights.” Newsome said he believes this could practically be done by having shippers say they accept the terminal provided weights as meeting their responsibility for certification as part of their shipping instructions to the lines.
Both of those concerns will need to be resolved by the U.S. Coast Guard, which has yet to provide any official guidance, though it is expected to publish a policy letter later this month.
In the meantime, container terminal operators outside of Charleston have been reluctant to provide clarity on how they plan to handle the verified weight rule, other than to tell carriers privately that they don’t want to accept containers through their in-gates without the VGM.
Late last year, Maher Terminals at the Port of New York-New Jersey said it will only accept containers for export if carriers have provided the verified weight by electronic data interchange transmission before the box arrives at the terminal gate, and that it will not provide weighing services for non-compliant containers.
At least 11 other U.S. container terminals have told one of the large container lines that they will refuse to admit containers that arrive at the gate unaccompanied by a signed VGM provided by the shipper. Few terminals seem to believe there is a viable business model in conducting weighing on behalf of shippers and charging them a fee, given the requirement to invest in weighing equipment and find space for the weighing process and associated storage.
But given the persistent questions from shippers about how they will comply with the VGM, a situation in which containers are weighed at the terminal would offer a potentially straightforward solution that would sidestep many issues shippers say they are struggling with in developing a strategy for compliance. Those include whether to acquire weigh bridges or scales themselves, or hire someone such as a third-party logistics provider to handle it for them. U.S. agriculture shippers say there is not enough time in the process of transloading commodities into containers before they are sent to seaports to provide a VGM prior to the container arriving at the terminals. The Charleston idea could provide a solution to this group in particular.
Although Charleston’s neighbors to the north and the south at Virginia and Savannah have scales on site, neither will be providing portside weighing services for containers.
At Virginia, the port has the ability to weigh cargo using conveyance equipment, such as cranes, and in-ground scales.
“On several pieces of our cargo conveyance equipment (gantries, straddle carriers, etc.) we have the capability to capture cargo weight information,” Port of Virginia spokesperson Joe Harris told JOC.com.
Harris said, however, that the port chooses to use in-ground scales instead to capture cargo weights when it does weigh cargo. The decision not to use conveyance equipment has two reasons, he said. First, there remain concerns over those scales and data accuracy. Second, using conveyance equipment to weigh cargo slows the processing of cargo as the machines must be at full-stop in order to register an accurate reading.
“The reading of container swaying under the spreader bar of a gantry will not be the same as it will be sitting still on the ground,” Harris pointed out.
Although the port does have the ability to weigh containers on site, Harris said, “we are not considering offering it to shippers.”
The same is true at the port of Savannah.
“We do have scales at all of our gates, but they are for our internal purposes only,” said Curtis Foltz, executive director at the Georgia Ports Authority. “We will not be certifying cargo weight.”
Foltz said it did not make sense for terminals to be responsible for container weight verification. While the GPA has a contractual relationship with ocean carriers, it does not have any such relationship with shippers and the onus of the new regulations falls on the shippers and no other party.
“If this rule is to be implemented, it’s pretty clear in my mind, there’s only one party that knows the weight of the freight being moved,” Foltz said. “It’s the shipper and the cargo owner.”
Newsome’s solution to have ports and terminal operators responsible for weight verification, he said, would not be attractive even if the port could accrue some revenue from rates or fees involved in the process.
“It doesn’t make any logical sense,” Foltz said. “There’s no logic anywhere where that makes sense.”
Where shippers can weigh their cargo is not the only question remaining as the July 1 VGM deadline nears. And as that deadline gets closer and questions grow larger in number, many in the industry are now pushing the Coast Guard to delay implementation stateside.
The Coast Guard can legally delay implementation of the VGM rule for a year by notifying the IMO before July 1.
U.S. exporters this month called on the Coast Guard to delay the rule until it can be amended and determined that they won’t face a competitive disadvantage against foreign exporters. And, if the Coast Guard does delay implementation, they won’t be alone. Just this week, Russia said it plans to ask the IMO later this month to delay the VGM rollout for shippers there.
The Coast Guard will host a Feb. 18 public meeting on the VGM mandate at Federal Maritime Commission headquarters in Washington.