Placard problems

hazmat placards
Image Credit: Copyright (c) 2007 by Mark Winfrey (EyeMark). All rights reserved.

Who should remove the placard(s) from an empty container?

This issue has become one of the most confounding and heatedly discussed issues in the transportation of Dangerous Goods. There are no questions with the process, that is until the Dangerous Goods have been unloaded, and the empty container is to be brought back to the pier or container yard. The issue is that the container is empty, but still has the Dangerous Goods placards for the last load on all four sides. Who is now obligated to remove these placards?  Is it the importer or the warehouse, or is it the carrier? As a good law-abiding citizen, I check the regulations. So what exactly does the US government tell me in 49CFR? Well in a word, nothing. Unfortunately, our government does not address this issue in the regulations.  

But wait, aren't there other regulations involved? How about the UN regulations in the IMDG Code, which is acceptable here in the US, what do they say? Here too, nothing. The IMDG Code does not address this issue either.  Now, what do we do? 

Fortunately, there are people out there that took this into consideration and sent a letter to our government PHMSA (Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration) to be exact, and requested a clarification as to how the US government views this issue. PHMSA came back with a letter of interpretation, telling everyone exactly how the US sees this. Let me quote here from the letter:

“As specified in§§ 171.2(k) and 172.502(a)(l), no person may display a hazardous material placard unless the package or vehicle is transporting hazardous material. Sections172.500(a) and 172.506(a) provide that the offeror and the vehicle operator are ultimately responsible for complying with placarding requirements, which includes the removal of placards representing hazards no longer present on the transport vehicle. Additionally, a motor carrier may not impose a conflicting requirement, through tariffs or otherwise, on a consignee when the consignee has not offered a hazardous material to the motor carrier representative of the placards that remain displayed on a transport vehicle.” 

This, of course, is as clear as mud, and really helps us understand who is responsible for the removal of those placards. Right? Well, from talking to representatives of our government, and to other members of the chemical and transportation industry, the common consensus is, that the offeror of the freight is the party that is responsible for the movement of this container to and from the place of unloading. To put it in simpler terms: whoever is responsible for paying the freight charges for moving this container.

So, if the importer is the party that will pay the freight to move the container, then the importer (or his/her warehouse) is responsible for the removal of the placards. If this container is moved on a door delivered basis, the exporter overseas (or his/her agents) is responsible for the removal.

In this situation, however, carriers (truckers as well as ss lines) usually refuse to remove the placards, and we are back to square one.  And, since the Letter of Interpretation does not carry any legal weight, we can not force the carrier(s) to remove the placards. 

To make matters worse, if the carrier will not remove the placards and the container now starts incurring demurrage charges, those will be charged to the importer. And I have seen these charges come from both the trucking company and the ss line - talk about a double whammy. My view is: lets take a look at the requirements for placing the placards onto the container after loading Dangerous Goods. Who is responsible for placing the placards onto the container? Under US regulations in 49CFR, it is the carrier’s responsibility (49CFR 172.506 (a)(1)), and under the IMDG Code the responsibility falls on the shipper (offeror) to placard the container (IMDG 5.1.1.2).

red white and blue container stacks

With all due respect to the good folks at PHMSA, may I offer my solution?

Let’s go with the IMDG Code here, the freight came into this country under the IMDG Code, lets continue to use the Code until the empty container is back at the pier or container yard, and the shipper, or in our case the importer is responsible for removing the placard  This may not always be fair (door to door moves, et) but at least we have a clear directive, and unnecessary costs, i.e. demurrage and bad feelings could be avoided.