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The Federal Aviation Administration is proposing a $175,000 fine for MIT, as a result of a CSAIL researcher shipping 33 devices with lithium batteries via FedEx in a box not labelled for hazardous materials — a violation of federal law. The box caught fire at FedEx’s Medford, Mass., facility on Aug. 25, 2009.

“Smoke and flames were coming from the shipment while it was being transported on a conveyor belt,” the FAA said. Because of the chemistry of lithium batteries, which can provide their own oxygen, FedEx employees were unable to put out the fire with extinguishers.

The FAA said that MIT violated Department of Transportation Hazardous Materials Regulations (49 CFR §171-173) in 21 different ways. MIT is liable for $250–$50,000 for each violation, and the FAA proposed a total of $175,000.

The FAA’s Notice of Proposed Civil Penalty (see related content online), dated Jul. 26, 2011, identifies the shipper as Lewis D. Girod, part of the SENSEable City Lab team which works on tracking trash with small transmitters. Girod had shipped the package to Professor Carlo Ratti, the director of the team, in Seattle. Last night, Ratti was travelling in Germany and could not be reached.

MIT’s response to the FAA is due on Sept. 16, after MIT requested and received an extension from the FAA’s 30-day deadline, according to FAA spokesman Jim Peters.

Girod said in an email: “The batteries were single-cell lithium polymer batteries and they were installed into prototype tracking devices. The devices were shipped without enclosures because they were going to be activated and potted at their destination. Several devices were packed next to each other with insufficient material separating them from each other.”

“During shipping,” Girod said, “a component of one device punctured the battery of another device next to it, causing an internal short. The two devices involved were badly charred but I believe that the others were unharmed.”

As a result of this incident, MIT’s Environmental Health and Safety office has increased its outreach efforts to attempt to ensure that MIT shippers are aware of the requirements for shipping hazardous materials, including batteries, said William C. VanSchalkwyk, Managing Director of EHS.

Two days after the incident, EHS sent out a notice to administrative assistants and to department, lab, and center coordinators, to “raise awareness across campus” about the special requirements for shipping lithium batteries and equipment containing them.

“MIT has been extremely supportive throughout the event,” Girod said.

“MIT has taken very aggressive action in identifying those individuals within MIT who have responsibilities for shipping hazardous materials,” Peters of the FAA said.

According to the FAA notice, the proposed $175,000 penalty includes a reduction for “corrective action” taken by MIT.

EHS is happy to help MIT users ship these materials, VanSchalkwyk said. “We’ll even ship it for you,” he said. “Just call the EHS main number [617-452-3477], and we’ll step you through the process.” He recommends three days’ advance notice.

Asked how many students and staff might still be shipping hazardous materials illegally, VanSchalkwyk said the number was “extremely low.”

“We have done some checking” he said, and “we think the program is very effective.”

The FAA said there was no fixed timeline for the penalty process, but that the FAA was likely to issue a Final Notice of Proposed Civil Penalty, possibly within a few months. Before that point, MIT has several options, including paying the proposed the penalty; submitting evidence that the penalty is unwarranted; requesting a reduction of the penalty; or requesting an informal conference to discuss the matter with an FAA attorney.

VanSchalkwyk said that this was the first time MIT had been assessed a penalty by the FAA, but declined to comment on the frequency of penalties from other agencies. “We deal with all the environmental agencies,” he said, including federal, state, and local agencies, such as OSHA and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “There are more than 200 regulatory programs” that affect MIT, he said.

An MIT spokesperson, Marta Buczek, declined to comment on the FAA proceedings, and could provide no information as to whether MIT had responded to the FAA.

“I’m very thankful that the fire occurred before it got on a plane and that nobody was injured,” Girod said. “And I always pack things of this sort carefully now.”