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FAA seeks retribution in MIT lithium battery fire

By Hpanchal on September 6, 2011

More than two years after the incident, the Federal Aviation Administration has spoken out about the August 2009 fire resulting from Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s shipment of lithium batteries. Proposing a $175,000 fine, FAA officials said that MIT directly breached the Department of Transportation’s Hazardous Materials Regulations.

FAA officials contended that MIT workers tried to ship a fiberboard box containing 33 small electronic devices on a FedEx flight from Cambridge, Mass. to Seattle. The lithium batteries connected to circuit boards and tube-like containers didn’t make it to Washington, however.

FedEx workers discovered the package after two of the devices caught fire on a sorting facility conveyor belt. They also discovered that the batteries weren’t packaged correctly and lacked verbiage alerting them of the hazardous materials. In fact, FAA officials contend, MIT’s package specifically stated that the shipment didn’t contain dangerous goods.

Because of this oversight, and the danger it presented to FedEx workers, FAA officials recommended that MIT pay retribution for its potentially deadly mistake. And the clock is ticking: MIT has less than 30 days to appeal the charges.

This news comes on the heels of a 19-member coalition’s open letter to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood concerning the shipment of lithium and lithium ion rechargeable batteries. Comprised of air cargo associations, battery manufacturers and electronics companies, the coalition urged LaHood to enforce penalties on shippers breaching air transportation safety policies concerning these goods.

Addressing the FAA’s May 18 citation of three lithium battery-related incidents, the coalition wrote that, “the failure of some shippers to comply with these requirements has been the root cause of virtually all of reported air cargo transport incidents.”

To rectify the situation, the coalition implored the DOT to endorse global execution of current lithium battery regulations and lead the rest of the world in advocacy. It also supported the creation of regulatory initiatives to spot counterfeit battery manufacturers and minimize the risks these devices present in transit.

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