June 22, 2011, 5:08 PM

Trade associations urge better enforcement of rules governing battery shipments

A letter to the U.S. Transportation Department comes as Congress considers tighter rules.

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A coalition of trade associations representing retailers, freight companies and electronics manufacturers has sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood urging him to act against shippers of lithium and lithium ion rechargeable batteries that fail to comply with applicable air transportation safety regulations. The letter comes as the U.S. Congress considers changes to battery rules that could increase the costs of shipping consumer electronics, making the issue important to online retailers.

Shipping regulations set by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, a department agency, apply to online retailers and other merchants that sell consumer electronics that use lithium-ion batteries whose capacity exceed 100 watt hours; the department rules classify such batteries as hazardous materials, which makes shipping more expensive because of the special packing needed. While small consumer electronics devices typically have batteries with less than 100 watt hours of power, some laptop batteries exceed that amount. 

More products could be covered by the rules, depending on the outcome of legislation before Congress. The U.S. House version of the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization and Reform Act covers batteries with less than 100 watts capacity. The Senate version does not contain that provision.

Last year when the transportation department announced it was considering the rule change, it noted that it had identified more than 40 air transport-related incidents related to the batteries since 1991. Such incidents include exploding or short-circuiting batteries in a portable DVD player, flashlight and TV news camera, according to newspaper accounts. And, in May, the Federal Aviation Administration noted three recent incidents involving batteries in transportation.

However, the coalition’s letter notes that each of those incidents was due to failure to comply with the regulations. “None of the incidents listed by FAA—and no others of which we are aware—were attributable to properly packaged, compliant shipments,” says the letter, whose signees include  the National Retail Federation, the Retail Industry Leaders Association and the Consumer Electronics Retailers Coalition.

Those non-compliant shipments often originate from Asia, the letter notes. “But the U.S. Department of Transportation does not appear to be increasing enforcement pressures on shippers of improperly packaged lithium batteries or addressing shippers’ violations of regulations.”

The letter’s signees urge the department to prioritize its enforcement of existing regulations before broader mandates are enacted that might include smaller lithium batteries. The coalition also called for federal officials to do a better job of tracking down the manufacturers of counterfeit batteries and reduce the risks those batteries pose in transportation.

The Department of Transportation provided no immediate comment about the letter.

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