Trucks at Work

Hazmat simplification

The … reduction in hazardous materials-qualified drivers is not the result of individuals failing the background check – less than 1% fail – but rather is a result of the onerous process associated with obtaining this credential and the fact that drivers often must obtain multiple credentials that entail expensive, duplicative federal background checks.” –Robert Petrancosta, vice president-safety for LTL carrier Con-way Freight

The issue of regulatory simplification is not new – it’s been around since … well, since regulations were invented. What I feel is interesting about the ongoing debate concerning hazardous materials transportation regulations are their economic impacts, especially upon truck drivers, fostered by the complexity and redundancy of the current rules.

It’s important to note here that safety and security of the current rules are NOT being questioned – in fact, they seem to be doing their job quite well.

Robert Petrancosta, vice president-safety for LTL carrier Con-way Freight, stressed that point in his testimony about hazmat rules last week before Congress. Each day, he said, there are approximately one million shipments of hazardous materials in the U.S. – with 94% of them moved by truck – and the rate of serious incidents involving the transportation of hazardous materials by motor carriers is just 0.0001%, with the percentage of incidents involving injuries is 0.00002% or two one-hundred thousandths of one percent. That’s a pretty good record if you ask me.

Furthermore, the trucking community believes the agency in charge of setting and enforcing the rules is doing a great job. “We support the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s (PHMSA) leadership in regulating hazardous materials transportation. [They’ve] implemented an enterprise approach to hazardous materials regulation and communicates on a regular basis with key stakeholders, including safety advocates, emergency responders, carriers and shippers,” Petrancosta said.

He noted that the agency also embraces a risk-based, data driven approach to balance the need to ensure the safe and secure transportation of hazardous materials so they move efficiently in commerce. “PHMSA also has earned the respect of the international community and a PHMSA staff member currently serves as the chairman of the United Nations Subcommittee on the Transportation of Dangerous Goods,” added Petrancosta. “Congress should ensure that PHMSA maintains its status as the lead regulatory agency for hazardous materials transportation both at home and abroad.”

Con-way and Petrancosta are no strangers to hazmat, by the way. Out of the 56,000 shipments its 8,500 trucks and 17,000 employees handle every day, some 2,000 contain hazmat cargo. Petrancosta himself is past chairman of the American Trucking Assn.'s (ATA) hazardous materials policy committee, so he lives and breathes this stuff (figuratively, I stress) every day.

Yet there’s room for improvement – especially in terms of simplification. Truckers are finding they must submit – and pay for out of their own wallets – multiple background checks. Federal and state hazmat rules can conflict with each other, causing delays in obtaining permits. Jurisdiction over hazmat rules – jumbled between PHMSA (an agency within the Department of Transportation ) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) – also complicates things needlessly.

The big issue, though, is redundancy. Many states – even municipalities and local governments – are putting in place background checks and credential requirements for drivers that haul hazmat goods – requirements that needlessly duplicate what’s being done at the federal level, thus not improving safety or security all that much.

“Duplicative background checks and redundant credentials have caused a dramatic reduction in the number of qualified drivers that are available to transport hazardous materials,” Petrancosta told Congress.

“Prior to the initiation of the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) background check program, there were more than 2.7 million drivers that had obtained hazardous materials endorsements (HME) to their commercial drivers licenses (CDL),” he said. “We estimate that the number of HME holders will fall to 1.6 million – some 41% – by the spring of 2010.”

Why this happening is pretty easy to explain – and it’s not about failing the background checks (less than 1% of drivers fail them, Petrancosta stressed). No, it’s all about the skyrocketing costs for these multiple checks.

“Drivers that transport hazardous materials must submit to a fingerprint-based background check to obtain HME to their CDL. This credential costs approximately $100, requires multiple visits to the licensing agency to complete the process and involves a delay of several weeks before the credential is issued,” Petrancosta explained. “Many of these drivers also access port facilities and therefore must obtain a Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) – these drivers receive a discount if they have already been through an HME check, but still must pay an additional $105.25 for the second credential.”

He estimates just obtaining federal credentials for Con-way’s drivers alone to be approximately $250,000.

However, here’s the kicker: “We recently learned that the city of Doraville, GA, has imposed a security background check for individuals that access the Doraville petroleum loading facilities,” he said. “Under this program, Doraville collects fingerprints, transmits the prints to the federal government, receives a criminal history report, and then issues a Doraville credential at a cost of $100. The background check performed is identical to the check performed by TSA under the HME and TWIC programs. Unfortunately, Doraville has refused to recognize the HME or the TWIC as an acceptable credential.”

Petrancosta said the ability of states and municipalities to subject hazmat drivers to redundant criminal history background checks could easily become an unbearable financial burden to hazmat drivers that operate in hundreds of cities throughout the country, if such redundancy is not addressed in the federal regulations.

A similar issue exists at the state level when it comes to hazmat permits. Petrancosta said individual states maintain more than 40 separate hazardous materials permitting programs, triggered based upon the type of hazardous material being transported through the state. “Some states have more than one permit, depending upon the types of hazardous materials being transported,” he noted.

“Compliance with these separate programs is an enormous administrative burden for trucking companies that operate in multiple states, as it is extremely difficult to identify and monitor changes to these different permitting programs,” Petrancosta added. “For some smaller trucking companies, it is difficult to predict which states they may travel through and whether they will transport particular types of hazardous materials through that state in a given year.”

A solution to this problem would be the “Uniform Program,” currently administered by seven states (IL, MI, MN, NV, OH, OK, and WV), which is a “base state” permitting program that ensures participating states will continue to receive the revenue they have come to rely upon under their individual permitting programs. It would also reduce state expenses, as the inspection and administrative functions would be shared by all participating states, while reducing the administrative burden on the regulated industry.

These are good ideas – ones that do NOT lessen hazmat shipment safety or security, but rather lessen the administrative and cost burdens associated with these regulations. That’s smart and simple regulation – and we definitely need more of that.