By Alex Binkley

A container fire onboard COSCO Pacific in early January highlights the need for Transport Canada to focus on educating shippers on the importance of keeping mis-declared or undeclared dangerous goods from marine shipments, say shipping line and freight forwarder representatives.

The fire was caused by lithium batteries falsely declared as spare parts, the shipping line said. Two containers were destroyed, and a number of adjacent boxes damaged. Similar incidents took occurred recently on MSC and Hapag Lloyd vessels causing millions of dollars of damage to the ships and cargo and injuring crew members.

The largest container carrier, Maersk Line, has started to inspect containers randomly at a number of U.S. ports to check cargo declaration accuracy.

In the fall of 2017, Transport Canada launched a risk assessment of dangerous goods entering Canadian marine ports in containers without having been declared by foreign shippers. The initiative has raised concerns of containers arriving in Canada being held and opened for inspection adding delays and extra costs.

Karl-Heinz Legler, General Manager of Rutherford Global Logistics of Montreal, past President and current board member of Canadian International Freight Forwarders Association (CIFFA), said strict compliance measures are needed for shippers at origin to ensure the safety of containers being shipped to Canada. The same applies for Canadian shippers exporting cargoes in containers.

Dangerous goods that could cause a fire, explosions or other types of harm are a risk to port and terminal staff, truckers, railway workers and ship crews, he said. The solution to the problems lies with better compliance education of shippers who are loading containers.

Legler says the incidents involving mis-labelled or undeclared dangerous goods in containers are of grave concerns to marine risk underwriters. He refers to a recent statement by TT Club, which provides insurance and risk management services to the international transport and logistics industry, that the shipper clearly has primary responsibility to declare fully and honestly so that carriers are able to take appropriate actions to achieve safe transport. Ocean carriers have started to strengthen their misdeclaration policies and are penalizing shippers that are found to have misdeclared  or undeclared cargoes. The transportation industry works on documentation accompanying a shipment and when it comes to the accuracy of a declaration of a container’s contents. “It always goes back to the shipper,” he said.

Ship fires linked to the contents of containers has become enough of a problem that the Nautical Institute, which has observer status at International Maritime Organization, has scheduled a one-day conference on the issue in London in April to discuss containership fires and their prevention. The Institute wants international action to address the problem.

Transporters and forwarders have no argument with Transport Canada’s goal, Legler said. “The question is how to collect and interpret shipment data as to accuracy that would trigger TC to order container inspections.”

In addition to lithium batteries, for example, ensuring there is no oil or gas in vehicles shipped in a container is essential, he said. The time to inspect the container is before it is loaded in a ship. X-ray examination of a container will not find fluids and other dangerous substances. “Make the shipper responsible for the contents of the container,” he said.

Random inspections of containers arriving in Canada at the expense of the carrier represent putting the cart before the horse, won’t solve the problem, and also create safety risks for terminal workers and CBSA inspectors.

Transport Canada follows the IMO/UN classification system for dangerous goods, which shipping lines, freight forwarders and brokerage houses are well acquainted with and trained in, he said. IMO needs to develop a standard declaration form on container contents to be completed by shippers for all cargoes to nail down responsibility, and assure that the cargo does not represent a safety risk.

One step Transport Canada should take is ensuring that Canadian exporters are fully complying with the various applicable dangerous goods regulations for their shipments, Legler said. Chad Allen, Director of Marine Operations with the Shipping Federation of Canada said that under international marine shipping rules, if dangerous goods are properly documented as being in a container, then it will receive special storage on a ship separate from the other loads. “These shipments can’t be stowed just anywhere on a ship.”

The shipping industry is working with Canada Border Security Agency (CBSA), which is on the lookout for drugs and other illicit products, to make it more aware of container operations, he said. One challenge is the containers carrying consolidated shipments from several shippers compared to ones loaded by a sole shipper. Transport needs to be looking for the information gaps in shipping containers and get international agreement to fix them.

Both men said the industry knows that criminal organizations are always looking for ways to smuggle products in containers and wants to help CBSA find these shipments. A Transport Canada spokesperson said the department has consulted with the industry and has come up with several proposals for dealing with the situation, which are still under consideration. Action is planned during 2020.

The proposals involve collecting “data to assess the prevalence of undeclared and mis-declared dangerous goods and to monitor reported occurrences.” That would include working with other federal agencies such as CBSA to assess prevalence of undeclared and mis-declared dangerous goods discovered at Canadian ports. It could conduct a targeted inspection and awareness campaign amongst shippers, ground transportation service providers, freight forwarders, shipping lines and brokerage companies.

Transport Canada is also considering working more closely with CBSA “to obtain access to additional data through existing initiatives and update the existing memorandum of understanding between CBSA and Transport Canada to facilitate information sharing and collaboration.” It could also aid in providing dangerous goods training to CBSA officers and conduct periodic transportation of dangerous goods compliance awareness and education sessions with industry associations, and develop a standard internal operating procedure across the regions for addressing compliance issues related to undeclared dangerous goods in cargo.