By Merrill Witty | Photographs by Donovan Eaton Photography
As President of International Cargo Surveyors (ICS), a local Port of Baltimore company near Dundalk Marine Terminal, Stephen Miernicki is much like a midwife: on call seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Because the Port of Baltimore never sleeps. And the ships can’t wait.
“Sometimes you’re so busy, you don’t want the phone to ring,” he said. “Other times it may be slower and you ask yourself: Am I in the right business?”
But this time of year, stores want to make sure they have inventory in time for the holidays; is everything OK in China? It’ll take a month for a ship to get in from there. Then the cargo has to go to distribution centers. ICS can be involved for customers every step of the way.
“IKEA and Costco take in thousands of containers a year,” he notes. “If there’s a small hole in a container, it can become damaged by water seeping in. What is the extent of the damage? I can also bid out salvageable goods to salvage companies if anything can be saved.”
ICS’ cargo surveyors conduct inspections, surveys or examinations of marine vessels to assess, monitor and report on their condition and the products on them, as well as inspect damage caused to both vessels and cargo. Marine surveyors also inspect equipment intended for new or existing vessels to ensure compliance with various specifications. Marine surveys typically include the structure, machinery and equipment, and general condition of a vessel and/or cargo. They also judge materials on board and their condition. Certifications and subsequent payments are processed only after the surveyor has expressed his satisfaction.
Originally, a young Miernicki wanted to follow in the fin-kicks of Jacques Cousteau. He saw the famed marine biologist on TV and knew he wanted to study oceanography. So he attended the State University of New York’s Maritime College at historic Ft. Schuyler; it’s the oldest and largest maritime college in the country. The school also prepared him to become a U.S. Merchant Marine officer, and after graduation he spent three years as a deck officer. “I saw fewer fish and more ships,” he said. And not a single mermaid.
Eventually, he and a partner, whom he bought out in 1983, launched ICS.
“A surveyor is basically the referee of the marine terminal,” said Miernicki. “I provide measurement surveys to determine the cubic capacity for the freight rate. We will sample bulk cargo to determine quality and set the price on the letter of credit. We also inspect damaged shipments, and our detailed reports with photographs are the basis for the claim.
“Many times, these will go to court, where we provide expert-witness testimony. We also inspect empty containers and their chassis to determine if they are Cargo Worthy or Road Worthy.”
Miernicki and his surveyors may also be hired for a sampling inspection. Recently, he drilled into a cargo of tin ingots and sent samples to a lab to test whether the quality matched the letter of credit.
Sometimes matters go to court, such as after an accident or discrepancy. In recent years, Miernicki has testified in court as an expert witness “probably 20 or 30 times.”
“A witness,” he said, “testifies to what he saw. An expert witness testifies as to what he saw and what he thought.
“As an independent, uninterested third party, I don’t care what anyone says,” he asserts. “This morning, I was booked by a shipper. They provided the dimensions. That results in the cubic feet of a shipment to figure out the freight rate.” But when Miernicki’s measurements come in, that will be considered the final number upon which the freight rate is based. This, along with checking to see a container is loaded properly and secured properly and that the container is in good order, comprises preventative surveying.
There are several other surveyors based at the Port of Baltimore too. “We are all independent contractors,” Miernicki said. “We call balls and strikes.” But rather than being in competition, the surveying companies often work together on a project. One of them might be hired by the shipping line, one by the cargo owner, one by the insurer, etc. The Maryland Department of Transportation Maryland Port Administration (MDOT MPA) itself may also hire a surveyor to ascertain whether there has been damage to a pier by a ship, for example.
“I have worked continuously as a marine surveyor in the Port since our founding,” Miernicki said. “I am currently training my son and have an associate in Norfolk, Va. The MPA is so good to work with; they’re
The wide variety of cargo Miernicki has overseen has included cases of wine, a transformer out of Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant loaded on a barge heading to Mexico, and even a circus heading to Puerto Rico.
“The Port’s concentration on a mix of business is really wonderful for surveyors,” he said. Miernicki works with both breakbulk cargos and roll-on/roll-off ships. There has been mining equipment, tractors, cars, grain and even animal trailers.
“We used to load pregnant dairy cows from a farm in Pennsylvania going to Puerto Rico,” Miernicki said. “They were pregnant so the buyers could be positive they would give milk. We had a trailer break loose once and a cow escaped. They were required to have animal handlers with them and it was dicey for a little bit, but he corralled her.”
International Cargo Surveyors AT-A-GLANCE
7 Center Place, 2nd Floor
Baltimore, MD 21222