House-Senate Panel Blocks Exemption For Hazmat Shipments

Most of the time, this column reports on what has gone wrong on the fire politics battlefront. The reason is that so many things seem to go wrong and, when they do, it's essential for all of you to be aware of a new problem and prepared to take whatever action is necessary. But, every so often, it's a pleasure to report on something that has gone right - and this month's column is one of those rare occasions.

The good news is that the agriculture-business industry has lost another round in its on-going effort to be excluded from hazardous materials regulations on certain substances shipped by truck within a state. In the final days of the 105th Congress, a House-Senate conference committee refused to grant the exemption that had been tacked on to an appropriations bill.

It means eight states that had not been enforcing the federal standard on intrastate shipments of hazardous materials will now have to comply with the regulations that cover interstate transportation. The states involved were: Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio and Texas. Had the agri-business interests prevailed, other states could have followed their example.

As reported here last August and September, the distributors of agricultural chemicals wanted an exemption from having to display placards and carry shipping papers on trucks hauling up to eight tons of ammonium nitrate, 2 1/2 tons of pesticides and tankers loaded with anhydrous ammonia - if the vehicles did not cross state lines. They complained that the regulations were costly red tape that imposed a needless financial burden on farmers and small businessmen. (A hazmat label and mounting frame cost $12.58!)

Led by Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Montana), a group of farm state senators had attempted to slip the exemption through by adding their amendment to appropriations bills. Twice they were defeated by a coalition of 54 fire-rescue, environmental, highway safety and trucking industry organizations. However, on their third try, they succeeded in getting the exemption passed by quietly slipping it into an appropriation bill when it reached the Senate floor.

It was an unexpected and serious setback for firefighters and their allies. The potential threat of a fire, explosion, spill or leak is the same whether a truck carrying a hazardous cargo is traveling interstate or intrastate.

A dangerous chemical doesn't act any different if it's being shipped across the country or merely to the next town. And, despite the claims of the agri-business industry that these shipments moved mainly on country roads, there have been numerous hazmat incidents involving these same products on crowded highways in heavily populated areas.

Alan Caldwell, director of government relations for the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), pointed out that the exemption "would have put blinders on firefighters responding to an emergency hazmat incident," and that uniform regulations were needed to protect firefighters and the public. Bill Webb, executive director of the Congressional Fire Services Institute (CFSI), accused the agri-business industry of "using the small farmers as pawns to delay implementation of the rules."

Fortunately, the House version of the appropriations bill did not include the hazmat exemption and a House-Senate conference committee became the last ditch battleground to kill it.

Once again, the CFSI, IAFC, International Association of Fire Fighters, National Fire Protection Association and National Volunteer Fire Council teamed up to fight the battle. When combined with the other concerned groups, it was one of the most formidable coalitions ever brought to bear on a fire safety issue - and it worked. The House-Senate conference committee killed the exemption!

A key element leading to their success was a grassroots response from the fire-rescue service. Many of you let your members of Congress know of your opposition to the agri-business exemption and it had an impact. Fire chiefs came to Washington for a press conference that spelled out the danger facing firefighters and the public.

Special thanks also should go to Senators Frank Lautenberg (D-New Jersey), John McCain (R-Arizona) and Fritz Hollings (D-South Carolina), who played leading roles in opposing the exemption in the conference committee.

There are a lot of lessons to be learned from this long and hard battle. It shows what can happen when the fire organizations work together and the importance of reaching out to gain the support of other groups who share some of the same concerns. That's something to remember when confronted with similar battles in the future.

It also demonstrates how important it is to stay alert. Each time the fire service won a round, the agri-business interests came back with another maneuver to revive the exemption.

The 106th Congress is just getting underway, but before it ends two years from now, don't be surprised if the hazmat exemption once again shows its ugly face on the tail end of some innocent-looking bill.

Hal Bruno, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a political analyst with ABC News in Washington and served many years as a volunteer firefighter.