Carriers read the bottom line: safety steps are cheaper

It pays to be safe! That's what the shippers of hazardous material's are finding. Of course, new government rules and regulations are forcing the transportation business to be more careful in rail, road, and river shipments of hazardous materials -- some 250,000 shipments each day last year. But the industry has also found that safety measures are cheaper than disaster.

Out of these 250,000 shipments, about 16,000 accidental leakages took place -- most of them minor. But the recent flurry of serious accidents points up the importance of better safety equipment and standards.

In Waverly, Tenn., a company shipping by rail was sued for $30 million. An accident there caused extensive damage to the countryside and killed 15 people. Chances are the accident could have been avoided had sufficient safety steps been taken.

The Department of Transpostation (DOT) regulates all modes of transport under its Title 49 code list. Most sources feel these are only an introduction to what could be done to prevent accidents.

Many transport companies are implementing safety devices on their own. Some have their own safety research, while others simply keep up with federally funded projects which they feel could be beneficial.

Preston Lockridge, an official with the Transportation Test Center of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), says the testing center devises improvements for tank cars and tracks which "could curb the number of accidents."

One is a flame retardant coating which, when painted on tank cars inhibits them from igniting. Sometimes when one car gets punctured, it acts like a torch , shooting flame onto other cars. With the coating, they will resist combustion.

A 1,500-foot section of track equipped with devices attuned to potential problematic areas of the train is another testing center safety effort.When the train is run over the track, the devices detect dragging brakes, cracked wheels, adn other sources of derailment.

The information is relayed back to a computer area where the signals are read , and defects can be fixed before the train leaves the area.

Mr. Lockridge says that so far only a few rail companies have implemented these improvements, but he reports that "their attitude is quite positive," and he expects greater cooperation.

Different types of toxic materials need different precautionary measures and tank cars, says Gloria Stone, a spokeswoman for the Boston & Maine Railroad. Tank cars are usually owned by the company shipping the chemicals, not the railway, and are built according to safety rules from the FRA and Association of American Railroads.

Boston and Maine has spent $104 million in the past six years on track rehabilitation, and other maintenance.

Regulations for truckers and shippers vary intrastate, but the Federal Highway Administration sets up general interstate guidelines.

States, the highway administration, and various trucking companies combine to evaluate routes and provide transporters with guidelines. Says Russell Toth, hazardous materials liaison officer at the Federal Highway Administration: "Our aim is a good route with minimal exposure to population."

The Aug. 9 propane leak on the George Washington Bridge in New York City highlights the importance of local regulation. With better attention to routing , the incident on the heavily trafficked bridge to Manhattan Island could have been avoided, the experts maintain.

Ralph V. Durham, director of safety and health for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, sees a problem with local regulation: "There will be a mishmash if it's left to the states. Drivers won't know what routes to take."

As for safer equipment, the Federal Highway Administration is "doing its best ," says Mr. Toth. "We don't want something that will run into a concrete wall at 150 miles per hour, but we do want to make sure that a tank truck is safe by having its manufacturers prove the product will withstand rigorous transport."

Many tank trucks now come with vapor release valves which prevent excessive pressure within the tank.

Drivers are most vulnerable to accidents. Many companies are establishing training programs on the special needs of hazardous loads, hoping to lessen the chances of injury. "There is a bewildering array of hazardouw materials," says Stephen McDougall, Teamsters Union industrial hygenicist, "and the driver nees to know what he's handling and how to work with it in an emergency."

The Coast Guard also has preventative hazardous materials measures. Chief Richard Griggs of the Pollution Responce Branch says regulations touch on chemical control in a number of ways. "No ship is built until we review the company's construction plans," he says. "Once on the water, all ships are inspected frequently at port." Also, the DOT has compatibility tables for cargo stowage which, for instance, prevent shippers from loading acid over something flammable.

Local port regulations vary according to geographics. In Boston, where the port is fairly narrow, ships carrying liquefied natural gas take priority over other ships entering the harbor. The port practically shuts down while the tanker pulls in. Port Captain Barry Eldridge says a "two miles ahead and one mile stern collision safety zone" is required as these tankers enter and leave the harbor.

Both Captain Eldridge and Chief briggs agree that water transport is the safest way to move hazardous loads. The total number of mishaps involving the transport of chemicals in barges, bulk carriers, and cargo ships in 1979 was 4, 325, about 25 percent of the accident total.

Radioactive materials are a particularly sensitive regulating area for all transporters. Lee Metcalfe, a hazardous material specialist for the DOT, says radioactive materials in all modes of transport are will regulated compared with chemicals. A truck can hit a rail car with nuclear materials in it at 60 miles an hour and the car wouldn't even bruise.

But the Teamsters Union's Stephen McDougall disagrees: "Radioactives may be well regulated on paper, put studies show drivers and shippers are overexposed. The problem is that no one monitors the radioactivity." Independent truckers are especially vulnerable to illegal exposure since they are more willing to cart dangerous loads in order to keep themselves in business.

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