While the International Civil Aviation Organization Dangerous Goods Panel recently declined to implement more stringent rules for shipping lithium batteries, the group has agreed to convene a special session early next year, at which time it is expected they will reconsider the matter.
Last month, the ICAO Dangerous Goods Panel (DGP) considered a working paper (WP/72) submitted by Janet McLaughlin of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Ms. McLaughlin is the DGP member nominated by the United States. During a public meeting held prior to the DGP, it was explained WP/72 did not necessarily reflect the views of the DOT, but since Ms. McLaughlin is a DGP member, she is able to submit proposals based on her own independent views. As a basis for the proposals in WP/72, Ms. McLaughlin stated that:
“Currently, Packing Instructions 965 and 968 [of the ICAO Technical Instructions for the Safe Transport of Dangerous Goods by Air (ICAO TI)] are applied to lithium ion and lithium metal batteries, respectively. Section II of those Packing Instructions provides for complete relief from all other provisions of the ICAO TI when certain conditions defined in those sections are met. While these conditions limit the quantity of batteries per package, no limit is placed on the number of packages that may be consolidated within an overpack, palletized, transported in a single unit load device, or placed in a single aircraft cargo compartment. In addition, because such batteries are not declared as dangerous goods, operators are limited in the information received – for example no dangerous goods declaration is required and no notification to the pilot in command is necessary. While the relief afforded may make sense for an individual battery or small numbers of such batteries, the lack of any limit beyond the individual package quantity allows for large quantities of batteries to be consolidated therefore increasing the risk in a fire situation – whether or not the fire is initiated by the batteries themselves or by an outside source.”
WP/72 proposed to delete Section II of Packing Instructions 965 and 968. This amendment would have eliminated the exception for small lithium ion and lithium metal batteries (i.e. such batteries not transported in or with equipment) and require that: (1) shippers would be required to receive formal training in the requirements for shipping lithium batteries; (2) operator acceptance checks for compliance prior to loading and stowage aboard an aircraft would be required; and (3) pilots would be notified of the presence, location and quantity of lithium batteries aboard the aircraft.
As a result of a 10-6 vote (supporters included the members nominated by the United States, IFALPA, Russia, France, Italy, and Brazil), the DGP declined to accept the WP/72 proposal. Nevertheless, the DGP agreed to convene a special working group session to consider placing more stringent restrictions on the shipment of lithium metal and ion cells and batteries in Montreal in January 2012. It is likely that the matter will be reconsidered there.
On a positive note, many DGP members recognized the fact that enhanced outreach is a key to preventing future incidents involving lithium batteries in transportation and recognized that many of the recent incidents resulted from a lack of knowledge and adherence with existing regulations. The Rechargeable Battery Association (PRBA) and others have repeatedly pointed out that “there has never been a reported incident involving a lithium ion battery in transport that was packaged in compliance with the hazardous materials regulations.” Several organizations, including the UK Civil Aviation Authority (UK CAA) and PRBA, are developing informative videos and outreach initiatives to address the safe transportation of lithium batteries. These should go a long way towards educating those that continue to ship non-compliant shipments. In addition, a more aggressive enforcement approach toward frequent violators could make a big difference in changing the behaviors of those that intentionally violate or ignore regulatory requirements, including those that offer undeclared shipments of batteries aboard aircraft.
Unfortunately, more than five years since the U.N. Sub-Committee of Experts on the Transport of Dangerous Goods and the DGP adopted more comprehensive requirements for the transport of lithium batteries, U.S. regulatory requirements continue to be inconsistent with international requirements, resulting in confusion and hampering education and compliance. If the special DGP working group results in agreement on whether the current requirements in the ICAO TI need to be amended and what those amendments should be, then perhaps the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) will be in a better position to adopt the international requirements for the transport of lithium batteries, and the focus that is needed on outreach and enforcement will be realized.