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4 shippers under investigation by Coast Guard at Port of LA

The Coast Guard worked with port partners to identify shipping containers with undeclared hazardous materials following a container fire at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

At approximately 8:20 p.m. PST on March 4, watchstanders at Coast Guard Sector Los Angeles-Long Beach received a report of a shipping container on fire. The container was due to be loaded on a vessel sailing for China on March 10.

Related: Los Angeles imports slump further as congestion throttles volume

The Los Angeles Fire Department extinguished the fire. However, those efforts were complicated because the container was not marked as carrying hazardous materials. The bill of lading for the container indicated that it was carrying “synthetic resins.” Further investigation revealed that it actually held about 18,000 pounds of used lithium-ion batteries, which are a regulated hazardous material.

“As a result of that incident, we’ve been able to, as part of our investigation, determine a larger issue at hand — a more widespread undeclared hazmat issue across the board,” James A. Frank, marine science technician senior chief with Coast Guard Sector Los Angeles-Long Beach, told FreightWaves.

Frank said the shipper in this case violated regulations in regard to properly labeling and declaring hazardous materials.

“The container was in a stack. So, as you can imagine, they [firefighters] had to move other containers out of the way, get ahold of the container that was on fire, and figure exactly how to combat the fire without making it worse,” Frank added.

It took crews a few hours to extinguish the fire, but no other containers were damaged and there was no major disruption to port operations.

The Coast Guard worked with the responsible party, Customs and Border Protection, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration, and port officials to identify and inspect all the shipper’s containers in the port. The Coast Guard placed a hold on the shipper’s containers until labeling and declaration protocols were met.

“Undeclared hazardous materials pose a severe risk to the safety of cargo vessels, the ports, and first responders,” Capt. Rebecca Ore, captain of the port and commanding officer of U.S. Coast Guard Sector Los Angeles-Long Beach, said in a press release. “Along with our federal, state, and local partners, the Coast Guard is dedicated to working with all shippers to ensure hazardous materials are properly marked and packaged for safe transportation.”

Related: Breaking the ice: Coast Guard’s vital role in maritime shipping

As a result of the fire, Frank said the Coast Guard has been “controlling and scrutinizing” the cargo movement of three other shipping companies — about 40 containers in all — that use multiple facilities throughout the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. All containers were detained until to determine if they were properly packaged and labeled. Officials determined that six of the containers were carrying undeclared hazardous materials. 

Until the investigation ends and officials determine the cause of the fire, Frank said he can’t name the shippers under investigation, or what punishments they could face. But he did say they could face warnings on the low end and criminal charges on the high end.

Frank added that hazardous materials violations have probably been happening “since the beginning of maritime commerce” and surfaces from time to time. He said most containers coming through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are properly labeled, but shippers occasionally try to cut corners, usually to save money.

“The real danger is the container could have been below deck on board a vessel in the middle of the ocean,” Frank said.

Last week, the Coast Guard released Marine Safety Alert 01-22 regarding the hazards of transporting and discarding lithium-ion batteries.

Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Nick Austin.

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