Hazmat Oversight Demands Attention

March 8, 2004
For the most part, industry and government have worked well together to develop and implement assessments and tightened security measures. Late last year, however, a pair of situations arose that underscore some procedural differences between the two

By Nick Basta

For decades, operating companies have made decisions about where to build chemical plants based on availability of resources and proximity to customers. Now, however, with the heightened focus on security, another factor is looming large: the regulatory framework of how chemicals are stored and shipped.

In transportation-industry lingo, "shippers" are manufacturers -- in this case, chemical producers. "Carriers" are the companies hired to transport products from the plants to their destinations. "Distributors" -- who may or may not be shippers, carriers or true distribution companies -- accept products from manufacturers, and store and ship them.

Over the years, a comprehensive body of rules and practices has evolved for chemical distribution and the various modes of transportation, such as rail, truck, ship and pipeline. In the United States, federal bodies, including the Department of Transportation (DOT), issue rules like the familiar hazardous material (hazmat) ones.

Hazmat rules underwent a step change in the 1980s, during the aftermath of the Bhopal, India, disaster that caused thousands of deaths and raised everyone's awareness about the risks of chemical releases. And the rules currently are undergoing another step change in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, which made the risks of a terrorist attack and its consequences all too familiar to us. We now have a Department of Homeland Security, a Transportation Security Administration and new Department of Transportation rules for regulating hazmat issues.

It is interesting to note, if only for the historical record, that both industry and federal agencies were working on anti-terrorism measures before Sept. 11, 2001. For example, industry incorporated security practices in the Responsible Care program of the American Chemistry Council (ACC), Alexandria, Va. Among other Federal initiatives, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) made changes to aspects of its risk management protocol (RMP) planning. Who can say what attacks have been prevented by the excellent work expressed by these measures?

For the most part, industry and government have worked well together to develop and implement assessments and tightened security measures. Late last year, however, a pair of situations arose that underscore some procedural differences between the two. In November, DOT released a final rule (which has the effect of law) called HM-223, defining hazmat rules for "pre-transportation" activities -- which can include how chemicals are handled within a manufacturing setting. Without getting too entangled in the legalisms, the rule has the effect of leaving hazmats outside the federal jurisdiction, while clearly not superseding local jurisdiction.

Industry representatives, including the National Association of Chemical Distributors (NACD), Alexandria, Va., ACC and others, are worried that this could lead to piecemeal regulation that varies by locality -- and there are 30,000 such localities in the United States. The rule could specifically affect railcar storage at a shipper's site or at a distribution point.

Coincidentally, an example of the same problem recently flared up in the City Council of the District of Columbia, when the Council considered legislation to ban the shipment of some hazmats within the District. Although motivated in part by environmentalist groups that wish to limit the use or manufacture of hazmats in all situations, the deliberations also reflect the natural concern that many cities have for bulk volumes of hazmats moving through their streets. At press time, legislation was under review by a public works committee.

The potential consequence of such proposals is that even if chemical companies continue to produce hazmats, they might not be able to deliver the materials to some customers. This situation is reminiscent of the lingering NIMBY (not in my back yard) issues that have long affected the location of chemical plants and waste-disposal facilities.

Bill Allmond, director of government affairs for NACD, says, "We might not always agree with DOT regulations, but we value their jurisdiction" to cover NACD members' activities. He also raises the issue of potentially higher air emissions because of local strictures. For instance, if a rule proves too onerous to allow unloading from a rail tank car at a site, then the likely consequence is to have the hazmat shipped via truck from its origin (or from another facility). However, trucks generally carry less material than railcars, so the number of loading/unloading procedures will rise. And, because most emissions occur during loading and unloading, this will likely increase emissions.

It's not very often that industry seeks out federal oversight of its practices, but this seems to be a case where it is warranted. Local control of hazmat distribution will open up a new level of NIMBY-ness that we don't need, and it won't make us safer.

Nick Basta is contributing editor for Chemical Processing magazine. E-mail him at [email protected].

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