Highway safety officials and emergency planners say prevention and preparation are the keys to avoiding or mitigating the impact of hazardous materials spills.
During a three-day period earlier this month, inspectors from the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio and the Ohio Highway Patrol joined regulatory agencies throughout North America on a three-day blitz to pull over trucks for unannouced safety inspections.
The state also does surprise inspections throughout the year to ensure that hazardous materials are being handled properly.
“We want to ensure that transportation is done safety, that everybody’s on an even playing field,” said Tom Forbes, field supervisor for the PUCO’s transportation enforcement division.
During the three-day blitz, Forbes worked out of a Preble County rest stop doing one-hour inspections of trucks, including those with hazard placards. Some violations can result in citations, while other more serious ones can result in the truck being taken out of service until the violation is fixed.
Nationwide, the number one violation found in roadside inspections of hazardous materials carriers is for “package not secure in vehicle.”
“It could spill. It could damage other freight. It may be shock sensitive depending on the hazardous material that it is. So you can’t have it bouncing around in the truck and causing releases or damage,” Forbes said.
In Ohio, paperwork problems and improper hazard placarding were the top violations found in Ohio’s inspections last year, followed by packages not being properly secured, according to Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration data.
Annual incidents constant
The vast majority of serious hazardous material transportation incidents in the U.S. occur on highways, with 4,298 reported since 2005, according to United States Department of Transportation data. The number of annual incidents has remained nearly constant since 2005, with 477 occurring in 2013.
Forbes said he feels like he is helping to make the roadways safe, even if only on a small scale.
“There are millions of trucks and not nearly that many inspectors,” Forbes said. “When you find something that you feel is very unsafe that could cause a crash, you do feel good about discovering that violation.”
Boyd Stephenson, director of hazard material policy for the American Trucking Association, said it is also important for officials to enforce traffic laws for passenger vehicles, since their actions can lead to a truck accident.
“The real areas we need to work on are things like speeding, reckless driving or lane changes,” Stephenson said.
Not every county has the same level of resources, which means some emergency responders are more prepared than others, area officials said.
David Anderson, director of the Preble County Emergency Management Agency, said about 50 people in his county went through initial training to use Level A Hazmat suits required for direct contact with hazardous material. But there isn’t enough money to get annual training and physicals necessary to actually use the suits, he said.
If a hazardous materials accident occurs, the agency will have to ask for help from outside the county, Anderson said.
“If it turned out there was going to be a rescue, it probably would turn out to be a recovery by the time we get people here who have the proper equipment and proper training,” Anderson said.
Denny Bristow, coordinator of the Dayton Regional Hazardous Materials Team, said his staff train for as many possible scenarios as possible, but give special focus to particular hazards like chlorine gas releases and crude oil.
Annual training sessions are bolstered by offerings from CSX Transportation Inc. and Norfolk Southern Corp., which bring a training car classroom with two tankers and spend a day working with first responders, he said.
Norfolk Southern offers free training to 4,000 to 5,000 first responders in the U.S. annually, said Susan Terpay, director of public relations for the railroad. Norfolk and other railroad companies are also contributing $5 million to develop specialized training involving crude oil, she said.
Lisa D’Allessandris, director of the Clark County Emergency Management Agency, said first responders there do both hazardous material and rail car training. She said training is one “piece of the puzzle” that she believes also needs to include rules for stronger rail cars, better marking of hazards and more notification when hazards are coming into the area.
“I think anything they can do to strengthen the laws and processes will keep our communities and first responders safe,” D’Allessandris said.