Port CEO ponders weighty maritime issues

Trucks entering the Port of Charleston are put on scales so the State Ports Authority can determine how much each cargo container weighs.

For Jim Newsome, the solution to uncertainty surrounding new international maritime rules that start in less than two months is simple: Let the Port of Charleston continue doing what it’s done for the past 20 years.

The CEO of the State Ports Authority said his agency is willing to weigh cargo containers for shippers to help them meet Safety of Life at Sea, also known as SOLAS, regulations that begin July 1. Under the new rules, shippers of cargo must verify the weight of each container filled with goods destined for export to another country. SOLAS is meant to protect the safety of ships as well as workers on board and ashore who handle cargo.

U.S. ports, including the Port of Charleston, already must weigh cargo containers to meet existing Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules. In Charleston, those weights are then passed along to the shipping lines carrying the containers overseas.

Newsome figures if the SPA is already weighing containers for its own purposes, it could easily provide that information to shippers needing to fulfill SOLAS requirements.

“If an individual shipper determines that our weights are the best that they have access to and that enables them to meet this requirement, would we give that to them? Yes,” Newsome said, adding that the SPA might charge a “modest fee” for the service.

The SPA would still provide the information to shipping lines at no charge.

Newsome is the first ports director to say he will consider such a service. Many U.S. ports, particularly on the West Coast, have resisted helping shippers and have said they will reject any container that doesn’t already have a verified weight certificate when it passes through the gate.

Newsome said that would hurt truckers who would have to hold onto such containers until shippers verified their weights.

“We’re not going to dump on the truckers,” he said. “I’m going to take that container in and wait on the shipper to tell me how to load it.”

The SOLAS rules will affect nearly 200 countries worldwide. They were developed in response to shipping lines’ complaints that shippers were giving them cargo containers with huge differences in the stated and actual weights. The problem has clogged production at some ports because ships expecting to carry a certain number of containers have had to leave some behind due to weight restrictions.

Fewer than a dozen countries have had their SOLAS guidelines published to the World Shipping Council’s website. The council represents about 90 percent of global container capacity and helped create the new rules. No U.S. guidelines have been published. While the Coast Guard is in charge of enforcing the rules in the U.S., it will not tell shippers how to comply with the rules.

That has Newsome worried about a logjam of cargo containers in Charleston and other ports worldwide once the rules take effect.

“Our fear is that ... I have 400 containers in a stack waiting to get on a ship and the line only has 200 (weight certifications) for those containers because they haven’t worked all of that out yet,” he said. “So they say, ‘I only want you to load these 200’ and I have to move the other containers to get to them. Our productivity goes from 35 units per hour to 10 units per hour, and we’re incurring a lot of extra costs.”

The Port of Charleston obtains container weights when trucks enter the terminal gates. Scales weigh the trucks and their loads, and port officials then deduct the weight of the truck and its chassis to calculate the net figure. The SPA recently conducted an informal study that showed its method was within 1.2 percent of the containers’ actual weights. While the U.S. hasn’t specified an acceptable margin of error, other countries have said margins of between 2.5 percent and 5 percent are acceptable.

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“So we were well within any acceptable tolerance,” Newsome said.

The SPA is hoping shippers will agree to certify those weights measured at the Port of Charleston as each container’s true weight for SOLAS purposes. But Newsome said he doesn’t want the SPA to get into the business of certifying weights.

“SOLAS says a shipper has to certify the weight to a shipping line, that rule is clear,” Newsome said. “But we load ships very accurately with our scale weights. Why shouldn’t a shipper be able to say, ‘We know we have a good system, and we’re going to use the port’s weights as we always have.’”

Time is running out for shippers that haven’t figured out how they comply with SOLAS and for those countries who aren’t sure how they will enforce the new rules, which begin in 82 days.

Newsome said he fears that in the haste of making a decision, the reliable method of weighing containers that’s already in place at the Port of Charleston might be scuttled. And that could lead to plenty of confusion at ports worldwide this summer.

“I’m really concerned about the (shipping) lines being able to get the (weight) data in a timely fashion,” he said. “I have a system today where I have a consistent method of knowing the weight on 450,000 export containers — I weigh them. The implication that you’re going to throw that method away and start collecting the data from 250 different sources on every ship, not knowing how they did it ... Why would I as a practical person adopt that system when I already have a pretty good system now.”

Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_