Hazmat regulator called ôcozyö with industry
A senior House lawmaker said a U.S. Transportation Department agency responsible for regulating the transport of hazardous materials has become too 'cozy' with the industry.
'It appears that complacency and neglect permeate the culture of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration (PHMSA),' said House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar, in his opening statement during a hearing Thursday into concerns with transporting hazardous materials.
'It seems PHMSA has become misguided in its mission,' he added. 'The PHMSA culture appears plagued by a belief that the agency should make things as easy as possible for the industry it should be regulating.'
Oberstar listed numerous instances of perceived mismanagement based on House committee and DOT inspector general investigations of PHMSA, including:
' Rarely rejecting special permits (less than 2 percent of about 5,000 applications) to carry hazmat that would normally be prohibited by federal regulations.
' Failure to conduct follow-up reviews on special permits (SPs).
' Failure to coordinate approvals of permits with other DOT agencies.
' Issuing permits to 'agents' of foreign governments without any evaluation of the fitness of the foreign company.
' Ignoring concerns of its enforcement personnel.
Oberstar also chastised PHMSA for issuing SPs to trade associations that allow members to use the permit's privileges. 'This defies logic because there is no way to hold a trade association accountable under the law, and often PHMSA has no idea who is using a particular special permit,' he said.
'I could go on for a couple of hours, but it is clear that PHMSA needs to rethink its relationship with the industry it regulates, and it needs comprehensive, top-to-bottom reform of its procedures and processes,' Oberstar said. 'The current state of PHMSA is completely unacceptable.'
However, some lawmakers and industry representatives warn against PHMSA over-regulating hazmat shippers and transporters.
'We need to strike a balance in hazmat transportation policy between making sure that appropriate safeguards are in place, while at the same time being careful that we do not unnecessarily burden the workhorse industries of our economy,' said Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., ranking Republican of the House railroads, pipelines and hazardous materials subcommittee.
Shuster noted that nearly one-third of all ton miles of annual freight on the country's roads, railroads, waterways and airlines are considered hazardous material. 'It is absolutely essential that we be able to safely and quickly deliver a wide range of potentially dangerous hazardous materials without unnecessary bureaucratic interference,' he said.
'If PHMSA revoked the SPs for transportation of bulk materials for blasting, explosives manufacturers would not be able to meet consumer demands for the amounts of materials needed to continue mining and construction,' said Lon D. Santis, technical services manager for the Institute of Makers of Explosives, in testimony before the House committee. 'Productivity in these industries would be reduced dramatically, perhaps initially by half. Some mining sectors would be virtually shut down.'
Instead, 'the long-term solution would be to move manufacturing and storage of raw materials on-site. This would result in thousands of locations where these security-sensitive materials are stored, and thus would create a security vulnerability where one did not exist before.'
The hazmat industry defended its overall transportation safety record. Most incidents involve Class 3 materials, such as bulk gasoline. Since 1999, there have been 109 transportation incidents resulting in fatality or injury involving gasoline shipments.
'In the same period, about 3.5 million shipments of bulk materials for blasting have been made without a single incident resulting in death or injury from the hazmat,' Santis said. 'Even if the first incident occurred tomorrow, based on incidents per shipment, the shipment of bulk materials for blasting would still be three to four times safer than the shipment of gasoline.'