Highway Bill''s Hazmat Skirmish

Highway Bill''s Hazmat Skirmish

Copyright 2004, Traffic World, Inc.

House and Senate conferees, already $60 billion or so apart in hammering out a final highway bill, have found another contentious issue to solve. This one concerns which regulatory agency gets the final say over hazardous materials violations.

Business interests favor the Department of Transportation''s Research and Special Projects Administration. Labor is inclined to favor the Labor Department''s Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

RSPA in the past has held jurisdiction over packaging regulations for the estimated 1 million hazmat shipments hauled every day in this country. OSHA has conducted spot inspections at docks of warehouses, but has drawn its regulatory line there, and avoided issuing regulations that would affect truck drivers, who routinely move across state lines.

Trucking interests long have favored regulations issued by DOT agencies, which truckers say are more inclined to learn the intricacies of transportation operations. OSHA, on the other hand, is a "big black regulatory hole," in the words of one transportation lobbyist, when it comes to transport regulations.

"The main theme is uniformity across jurisdictional lines," said Richard Moskowitz, assistant general counsel and regulatory affairs counsel for the American Trucking Associations. "Trucks travel across 33,000 different jurisdictional areas."

Truckers fear the proliferation of more than 33,000 different sets of hazmat regulations, if left up to OSHA. That''s because one of the things DOT hazmat law guarantees is uniformity, according to Moskowitz. Under RSPA, states wishing their own rules must assure their regulations are virtually the same as federal regulations, and not stricter.

"When OSHA promulgates a regulation, it sets a baseline," Moskowitz explained. "States are free to do anything but must at least meet the federal minimum."

Imagine the difficulties for trucking trying to cope with a personal equipment regulation issued by OSHA for, say, respirators. There are all kinds of respirators. One state might require one kind, another state might require their workers to have more protective equipment.

"Before you know it, you have a truck driver that needs to carry at least 15 different respirators," Moskowitz said.

Ed Wytkind, president of the transportation trades department of the AFL-CIO, says bypassing OSHA for hazmat regulation "doesn''t pass the laugh test," especially after 15 years of experience in the area. OSHA has issued approximately 700 hazmat violation citations over the pass decade, records show.

But ATA claims those citations haven''t been for trucking violations. "OSHA has not tried to exercise its jurisdiction over transportation workers to date," said Moskowitz. "We don''t a problem with OSHA inspecting warehouses. Uniformity is not as important in warehouses, which are not moving from point to point."

Labor interests favor the Senate''s $318 billion version of the highway bill. The $283 billion House version eliminates shared jurisdictions among agencies. President Bush has said he would veto any measure above the administration''s $256 billion favored number.

Still, the hazmat fine print argument may get lost in the larger struggle over billions of dollars of highway money, not to mention the Bush administration''s sudden urge toward fiscal restraint.