HAZARDOUS MATERIALS:

House T&I panel berates DOT for dismal permitting record

The Transportation Department agency that oversees shipment of hazardous materials has a lax permitting policy and maintains too cozy a relationship with the industry it regulates, according to the findings of congressional and Office of the Inspector General investigations that were released yesterday during a House oversight hearing.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration's oversight of hazardous materials transportation has raised safety concerns, Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) and DOT Inspector General Calvin Scovel III said at the hearing.

"This agency needs a house cleaning," Oberstar said. "Safety is not a one-time snapshot; it's continued vigilance ... and this agency has lost its way and along the way has developed a very cozy relationship with the industry it regulates."

The five-year-old agency has been issuing permits without reviewing companies' prior incident and enforcement histories and has been generous in issuing and regulating special permits, which authorize activities not covered under hazardous materials regulations.

Among other accusations, Oberstar and Scovel said PHMSA in some cases does not know where the special permits are being used; grants them to trade organizations that can pass them along to members in a blanket fashion; and relies on self-certification by the special permit applicants.

Sixty-five percent of the nonemergency special permits studied in the investigation were either incomplete, lacking evidence showing the applicant's safety record or were nonexistent, according to the inspector general's report. And of the 16 companies that held the majority of the special permits studied, none fully complied with the terms and conditions of the permits.

"Regulating and monitoring the movement of hazardous materials is a critical part of ensuring the safety of the nation's transportation system, and it is PHMSA's role to properly assess all risks before allowing applicants to participate in commerce under special permits and approvals," Scovel said.

"The sheer number of active special permits and approvals alone -- many dating back 10 years or more -- underscores the need to re-examine the strategy for adopting special permits and approvals into the Hazardous Materials Regulations to keep the current regulatory framework in sync with today's operating environment," Scovel continued.

Deputy Transportation Secretary John Pocari said he and Secretary Ray LaHood were aware of the permitting procedures and were taking action to improve the agency's safety record.

"Let me be clear -- Secretary LaHood and I regard transportation safety as the department's primary mission, and we are taking action to get PHMSA back on that mission," Pocari said.

Pocari said the department has begun conducting a comprehensive review of permitting policies and procedures and will make the necessary revisions. It is also clarifying agency policy to ensure trade associations do not hold special permits, and it is overhauling the data and information technology systems in place to enhance productivity and accountability.

"Re-establishing the safety culture is perhaps the most important priority," Pocari said.

Other concerns highlighted in the investigation reports include the agency's failure to promptly address safety issues associated with special permits to transport bulk explosives and lithium batteries.

The oversight hearing was held as the committee prepares legislation to reauthorize the hazardous materials safety program, which expired last September. That legislation is expected to be included as part of the surface transportation bill, which was released in draft form in June.