“Step by step we make the transport of dangerous goods safer”
All sorts of strict international regulations apply to the cross-border transport of waste and dangerous goods. In our country, surveillance of compliance with these is a task for Customs and the Human Environment and Transport Inspectorate (ILT). Professionals from both these organisations work closely within the maritime domain at the brand new State Inspectorate Terminal (RIT) on the Maasvlakte. Their objective is to uncover malpractices in container shipping in the field of the environment and safety – two topics that frequently go hand in hand. As was the case when they dealt with a large shipment of used household batteries in 2018.
“Enormous quantities of recyclable waste passes through the port of Rotterdam, both incoming and outgoing”, says customs officer René Noltus (right on the photo). “You need a so-called WSR licence to import, export and transport certain waste products in the EU and between member states. An American collector had received a licence from the Netherlands to deliver a total of twenty 40-foot containers with waste batteries to an approved German processor. In other words, everything was in order as far as obligatory documents relating to the environment were concerned. Nevertheless, Customs selected a sub-shipment of five containers for inspection, because used lithium batteries are actually classified as dangerous goods. Our service has been carrying out these inspections for more than 15 years on behalf of the ILT. It involves us checking, for example, the state the container is in, the labelling it is supposed to bear and how the cargo doors are secured. After this, we also check the labels and the integrity of packages. It’s all about safety: can the shipment be transported safely? We make a report of our findings – together with photographs of the freight – that is sent to our colleagues at the ILT. Their job is to assess the situation and, if necessary, take suitable and proportional measures. Customs retains the goods for the duration, based on its role as cargo manager.”
“In this specific case, it transpired that the discarder had not been particularly strict in complying with the rules”, explains ILT officer Henk Overeijnder (left on the photo). “The batteries had been loaded in bulk in defective barrels, resulting in enormous risks. When a large number of batteries are packed together badly, it can cause a short circuit. This generates warmth, the cores can melt and solvents can be released. It can lead to a chain reaction, and there is the chance of the whole cargo exploding. In circumstances such as these, the Inspectorate can exercise administrative coercion. We demand correction of the infringement – often poor stowage or leaks – before transport can continue. This happens with 30 to 40% of the containers that Customs selects for inspection. In this case, the shipping company and the recipient of the shipment accepted their responsibility and ensured that everything was properly taken care of and paid. Over a period of five days, a local salvage company re-packed the batteries, barrel for barrel, so that the poles were properly isolated – it was a real painstaking effort. This meant that the danger had been averted and Customs released the shipment.”
“We always pay close attention to all forms of high-risk freight”, adds Noltus. “Like in the case of LEL containers – containers with a lower explosion level – that contain highly inflammable and highly explosive gases. Enormous steel crates like these can suddenly be transformed into a gigantic fragmentation grenade.”
“This is our worst nightmare: a serious accident on board a container ship”, says Overeijnder. “Nowadays there are behemoths measuring up as much as 20,000 TEU. We dread the thought of such an oceanic giant getting into serious problems out on the high seas. A safe port is probably miles away, so the crew would have to save themselves. The human suffering, the consequences for the environment and the material damage would be unforeseeable if such a vessel were to perish with all hands on board.”
Improvement in sight
“Fortunately, our actions are usually effective”, adds Overeijnder. “By taking administrative action against certain players in the logistical chain, we see that, slowly but surely, compliance with the regulations is improving. We impose an administrative fine, hitting the recipient and the shipping company in their purses, and you can be sure they will get revenge on the dispatcher. At the very least he will have to promise to do better in the future.”
“This applies not only to the battery affair, but also to the many shipments of chemicals that come here from countries like China and India”, says Noltus. “Knowledge about proper packaging and stowage is often lacking in such countries. Barrels are sometimes found rolling all over the place in containers from these places. But European companies that have to sort out this type of negligence call to account those who are responsible in Farawayistan. Improvements generally follow in two-thirds of the transports where we discover irregularities – especially in the securing of cargoes. In this way, step by step, the transport of dangerous goods is becoming safer.”
GP and specialist
Noltus and Overeijnder are really enthusiastic about their close collaboration. “The way we work resembles how a GP and specialist work”, according to Noltus. “Customs has general knowledge and carries out the initial diagnosis, after which the ILT carries out the calibration, based on its broader, deeper expertise. ILT inspectors deal with waste and dangerous goods on a daily basis, Customs officers, such as myself, divide their time and attention over various disciplines. Examples of these are sanctions, counterfeit goods and weapons and ammunition.”
Overeijnder : “I can vouch for the fact that the preliminary work done by our Customs colleagues is always thorough and reliable. They are highly motivated professionals, who generally enjoy being involved in this field and keeping abreast of the laws and legislation. And I should know: I have my own workplace here at the RIT, and interact with them almost every day. What’s more, a quarter of the ILT colleagues on my team come from Customs – and that says a lot.”
This interview also appeared in our recently issued overview ‘Dutch Customs in 2018’. Click here to read the full publication.