The US Federal Marine Commission is to hold public hearings in January to gather input on a petition seeking a rule or policy preventing terminal operators and ocean carriers from charging unfair demurrage and detention fees amid uncontrollable incidents such as storms and strikes.

To date, the Commission says it has received 115 public comments from members of Congress, trade and shipper associations, individual importers, exporters, customs brokers, freight forwarders, logistics companies, trucking and drayage companies, vessel-operating common carriers, port authorities, and marine terminal operators.

It says both the volume of correspondence and variety of issues raised demonstrates the complexity of the issue, as well as the need to gain more information and engage stakeholders directly to better understand their perspectives.

The upcoming hearings are designed to further explore the issues raised by the petition and address specific questions.

"One question is whether the Commission can craft a general rule of universal nationwide applicability on detention, demurrage, and per diem provisions given the wide variety of commercial terms and conditions that are incorporated into VOCC service contracts and in MTO tariffs nationwide to address various events and circumstances," said acting chairman Michael Khouri.

"A further consideration to be addressed is the various and disparate operating protocols used at the 250 plus marine terminal operators currently registered at the Commission."

According to customs and international trade law firm Sandler, Travis & Rosenberg, cargo owners and trucking companies are normally given a certain number of free days to pick up containers of imported goods from ports after they have been unloaded from ships. After that period they can be charged demurrage, a fee intended to ensure containers are removed quickly and efficiently. In addition, detention and per diem fees can be charged if the containers and the chassis used to haul them are not returned within a specified time.

The petition is requesting the Federal Marine Commission use its existing statutory authority to adopt a policy that would require multimodal transport operators and ocean carriers to extend free days during times of port congestion, weather-related events, port disruptions, delays caused by government actions, or other requirements beyond the control of the parties picking up or returning containers.

In addition, the petition asks the Commission to declare demurrage and similar fees charged by carriers and MTOs during such incidents to be unreasonable under the Shipping Act. The petition would allow for compensatory fees to be charged in some cases as long as they do not exceed actual storage or equipment use costs.