'Serious' hazmat spills not reported
By Peter Eisler
WASHINGTON — Nearly half of all "serious" hazardous materials spills on roads, rails, airstrips and waterways go unreported to the government, leaving investigators without data used to identify unsafe carriers and containers, federal records show.
Although the Department of Transportation (DOT) says accurate incident data is critical to ensuring that hazmat carriers operate safely, it rarely uses its authority to penalize haulers that don't file the required reports after spills.
From 2006 through 2008, hazmat carriers failed to report 1,199 "serious" incidents, such as larger spills that cause substantial evacuations, major road closures, serious injuries or releases of especially dangerous materials. The number of serious incidents that were reported: 1,403.
The DOT's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration began identifying unreported incidents in 2005 using news accounts and logs from emergency response agencies. USA TODAY requested the previously unreleased data.
Hazmat carriers are required to report spills to the DOT, and the data "are directly related to the department's ability to ... protect the public from the inherent hazards associated with (hazmat) transportation," the safety administration said in a statement. Besides being used to spot unsafe haulers and containers that are prone to failure, the data also help "identify precursors to potential high consequence incidents."
Since Jan. 1, 2006, the agency has penalized just seven carriers for not reporting serious hazmat spills; four were fined up to $2,750 each.
All other cases were handled with warnings.
"It is (the agency's) responsibility to take some type of enforcement action," said Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., chairman of the House Transportation Committee. Without accurate data, the agency "cannot put together a strategic plan for reducing hazardous materials transportation incidents, fatalities and injuries," added Oberstar, who plans to explore the issue at a hearing Thursday.
Smaller hazmat carriers may not know the reporting rules, said Rich Moskowitz, vice president of the American Trucking Associations. "There needs to be better outreach to the industry and, if that fails, then ... stepped-up enforcement."