US Coast Guard urged to clarify SOLAS position after apparent flip-flop

The largest global container line group is asking the head of the U.S. Coast Guard to clarify its position on the SOLAS container weight mandate after a rear admiral said the rule was a commercial, not a regulatory, matter, an interpretation the World Shipping Council says flies in the face of the rule set to take effect in just 120 days.

In a March 3 letter to Adm. Paul Zukunft, the WSC called Rear Adm. Paul Thomas’s comments at the JOC’s 16th annual TPM Conference in Long Beach, California, “stunning” and said they contributed to confusion on how the International Maritime Organization’s rule will take effect July 1. The WSC, whose members control about 90 percent of global container capacity, was a major player in the creation of the rule aimed at improving maritime safety by requiring shippers to provide the verified gross mass of their containers before they can be loaded onto a ship. The Coast Guard wasn’t immediately available for comment.

“It is disingenuous and factually incorrect for the Coast Guard to suggest that relieving shippers of their regulatory obligation will not fundamentally undermine the effectiveness of the SOLAS container weight verification requirements. It is not possible to have it both ways,” WSC President and CEO John Butler wrote to the commandant.

Butler urged the Coast Guard to reverse its position if Thomas’s comments reflect the agency’s position. If Thomas’s comments don’t reflect the Coast Guard’s opinion, then the agency should issue a clarification, he said.

At the heart of the issue are Thomas’s statements that shippers were in compliance and no changes or enhanced regulation was needed to meet the amendment to the Safety of Life at Sea rule. The WSC took issue with Thomas’s comments that the IMO wasn’t the right place to address container weight accuracy rules, nor was SOLAS the right tool to do so. Thomas’s comments that the Coast Guard wouldn’t apply SOLAS regulations to marine terminal operators further frustrated the WSC.

“If the Coast Guard thought SOLAS was the wrong instrument to address this issue, why did it not say so during the four years of the SOLAS regulation’s development?” Butler wrote. “If this was the Coast Guard’s view, how could it agree to co-sponsor the various IMO papers that it did?  If the Coast Guard thought this way, why did it chair the correspondence group to develop and agree upon the new regulation’s implementation guidelines?”

Other maritime administrations around the world had been operating under the WSC’s understanding that the shipper is ultimately responsible for misdeclared weights, creating penalties for shippers in violation of the rule. Canada and Japan, for example, have already said that shippers could face various fines if they misdeclare the weight of their containers.

The Coast Guard by contrast has staked out a very hands-off approach, saying it most likely would only occasionally check for VGM on inbound containers, and it will hold cargo without a VGM until the country of the ship’s flag nation clears the cargo, and it is not even clear if the Coast Guard would levy a punishment against the carrier for loading a container without a VGM, a violation of the container weight mandate.

The WSC also questioned why the Coast Guard, if it believed it lacked jurisdiction over shippers, did not undertake an Administrative Procedure Act rule-making to establish a set of domestic regulations that would have given the SOLAS amendment teeth in the U.S. after the rule passed the IMO in May 2014.

The contradicting messaging has led U.S. exporters to push back against the rule and establish new business practices, while the credit ratings agency Fitch warned the new rule could slow U.S. port traffic.

Contact Dustin Braden at and follow him on Twitter: @dustin_joc.

Contact Mark Szakonyi at and follow him on Twitter: @szakonyi_joc.

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