by Lawrence W. Bierlein

Q. Recently I had to return electric lift trucks and extra batteries to the lease company. When researching I got conflicting information. Was this a hazmat load when additional batteries were shipped (2,000-3,000 pounds each), beside the one installed in the lift truck?

A. Yes. Wet electric storage batteries are regulated by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT, www.dot.gov) as a hazardous material. So are most other types of batteries.

A lead acid battery is regulated as corrosive material because of the presence of the acid. Another feature of these and other batteries, that is getting more DOT attention, is the potential for fires caused by short circuits.

When dealing with any device intended to have an electric charge, it is essential to consult the DOT hazmat regulations to determine the scope of regulation. A number of exceptions are granted in order to make ground shipment of batteries more efficient. It may be that some of your sources misinterpreted the exceptions to mean batteries are not regulated.

All DOT exceptions are conditional. If you do not meet the conditions, then you do not qualify for the exception and your shipment will be considered fully regulated. The most fundamental requirement running through all hazmat codes, in all modes of transportation in all countries, is protection against short circuits.

Under 49 CFR 173.220(c), batteries installed in equipment like a forklift must be secure, and wet batteries must be in an upright position. They must be protected against short circuits and leakage. If you meet these conditions, DOT waives the rest of the hazmat requirements for transportation of that equipment by highway and rail

For the additional batteries you returned that were not installed in the equipment, you need to look at 49 CFR 173.159(c). Again, you will find that the majority of the requirements relate to avoidance of short circuits and damage to battery terminals in transit. For people in the battery business operating their own trucks, Sec. 173.159(e) provides considerable relief, but again this relief is conditional. No other hazmat can be on the same vehicle, the batteries must be loaded and braced to prevent damage and short circuits in transit, everything else in the load must be secured, and only one shipper's products can be on the vehicle. The exclusive-use part of this exception probably would have made it unavailable for your shipment.

Although your question pertained to a shipment by truck, you and others who work with batteries and other devices for storing electrical energy should be conscious of a new effort within DOT involving the Federal Aviation Administration. Dozens of incidents involving fire and extreme heat or explosion have been reported aboard passenger and cargo aircraft. These incidents involve batteries of almost all types, as well equipment containing batteries such as computers, lighting devices and tools. Some were shipped by the original manufacturers, but most were re-shipped by users of the products and by air passengers.

This new DOT/FAA project is bound to result in new restrictions, not just on what might be carried, but how these products and the short circuit hazard should be identified at all times, so the article does not get on an airplane without warning to the aircraft operator.This project not only involves the United States but the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) for all air traffic.

In any event, whenever shipping batteries or battery-powered devices, check first to see if the shipment is authorized and, if there are conditions to any exception you wish to use, that your shipment actually meets each of those conditions. Also watch for development and adoption of new domestic and international restrictions on shipment and carriage of a wide range of these products aboard any type of aircraft (including company aircraft).

Lawrence Bierlein is a partner with McCarthy, Sweeney & Harkaway, P.C. (www.mshpc.com), in Washington, D.C. His practice is devoted to issues involving transportation of hazardous materials. He can be reached at (202) 775-5560, lwbierlein@ mshpc.com.