Focus Enforcement on Foreign Battery Makers, U.S. Told

September 21, 2015 07:30PM ET | Bloomberg BNA

Sept. 21 (BNA) -- The federal government should go after foreign companies mislabeling products that are likely to catch fire, rather than strengthening existing rules, battery manufacturers told the Transportation Department in the lead-up to an international aviation meeting in October.

Lithium battery manufacturers, along with the companies whose products rely on them, say the problem isn't with the batteries themselves but rather with those who are making them.

“You are aware and we are aware that battery manufacturers almost exclusively from Asia knowingly mislabel batteries so they avoid [international shipping] regulations,” David Weinberg, general counsel with the Portable Rechargeable Battery Association, told DOT officials at the Sept. 18 meeting. “We need more cooperation on the international sphere on knowing shippers of mislabeled batteries. The U.S. government has considerable leverage.”

Rather than penalize their entire industry with new shipping restrictions, the battery makers want the government to focus their enforcement efforts on the foreign companies that they say are the root cause of the problem.

Airlines, pilots' groups and others in the aviation industry, on the other hand, want the department to address the batteries' potential for extreme flammability by pushing for tighter international regulations that would limit how they can be shipped via air.

At issue are lithium batteries that, when damaged or poorly manufactured, are subject to a phenomenon known as “thermal runaway,” in which an electric short circuit can cause them to catch on fire and, in some cases, explode, according to David Blake, a senior engineer with the Federal Aviation Administration fire safety section.

Thermal Runaway

Thermal runaway occurring in a single, small battery, such as those used in cell phones or laptop computers, would lead to a minor, perhaps barely noticeable fire.

However, when hundreds or thousands of battery cells are packaged together, thermal runaway in a single battery can trigger a chain reaction that causes all of the batteries in a package to ignite. This, in turn, can cause a major conflagration that can cause thick smoke to billow out of an airplane's cargo hold into its cabin and, most worrisome, into its cockpit.

Janet McLaughlin, a hazardous materials official at the FAA, said at the Sept. 18 meeting that the complexity of addressing this risk has greatly increased in recent years as lithium batteries have become nearly ubiquitous in electronic devices and also because batteries now being shipped for use in electric vehicles are many times larger and more powerful than those used in electronics.

Fire Tests Questioned

Blake's team at the FAA has been conducting fire tests on lithium batteries to try to simulate how they would behave inside an aircraft.

The FAA test results, which Blake presented at the meeting, showed that the standard chemical flame retardant used in airplane cargo holds is ineffective at stopping a chain reaction after a thermal runaway event. The chemical is especially ineffective if a battery explosion opens the hold's air pressure release valves, allowing the flame retardant to leak out.

Representatives of the battery industry criticized the research after Blake informed them that the batteries his team used for its tests were purchased commercially and that his team did not try to determine if they were manufactured properly.

Weinberg told Blake that, given where his team purchased its test batteries, it was likely that they were made by a company that has “significant problems from the standpoint of construction.” Therefore, because Blake's team likely purchased faulty batteries, the conclusions it reached aren't fully valid, Weinberg said.

“What you seem to be doing is nonsensical,” he told Blake.

Bob Richard, vice president of regulatory affairs for the hazardous materials shipping company Labelmaster Services, took issue with the FAA for even publicly releasing Blake's findings.

“Before you go and run a test … give industry a chance to comment on the test methodologies,” Richard told Blake. “What's worrisome to me is that a government agency develops a test method, carries out the test, publishes the results, and then I go and turn on TV one night and there's George Stephanopoulos talking about burning [air cargo]. It scares the public. … It's unfair this is being done this way.”

Blake defended his team's work by pointing out that the batteries they tested “are representative of batteries that would be on airplanes because we buy them just like anyone else would.”

Pilots Want Tougher Rules

The International Federation of Air Line Pilots' Associations is pushing for tighter regulations, such as requiring lithium battery packaging to pass internal and external fire tests.

“If you don't address external fire, only what happens inside the package, you don't solve the problem,” Mark Rogers, chairman of the union's dangerous goods committee, told the DOT officials. “If we don't solve this problem, you're not going to change the minds of carriers who are refusing to carry batteries.”

Upcoming International Meeting

The FAA, along with the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, held the Sept. 18 meeting to hear the concerns of industry stakeholders ahead of an October meeting of several International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) panels.

The panels could make changes at the meeting to the ICAO binding standards for the international shipping of lithium batteries. DOT officials who are members of the international aviation body want to know which issues they should prioritize for discussion.

In addition to holding the Sept. 18 event, the department is accepting written comments at Regluations.gov under the Docket No. DOT-OST-2015-0169.

To contact the reporter on this story: David Schultz in Washington at dschultz@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

Reproduced with permission from Daily Environment Report, 183 DEN A-9 (Sep. 22, 2015). Copyright 2015 by The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. (800-372-1033) http://www.bna.com.