A long-running dispute between the fire service and the agriculture-business industry has become a semi-monthly skirmish on Capitol Hill. The issue is hazardous materials regulations and the battleground is the hearing rooms of various congressional committees. At this point, the score is Fire Service 2, Agri-business 0 - but the game is far from over and the final outcome is still in doubt.
This phase began last year when the Department of Transportation's Research and Special Programs Administration (RSPA) ruled that certain chemicals carried on trucks within a state by farmers and agriculture supply firms would not be exempted from the federal hazardous materials regulations that apply to interstate shipments. The ruling requires all trucks carrying these products to have the proper hazmat labeling, shipping papers and the driver to be aware of the 800 phone number to be called if there is a hazmat incident.
Previously, these intrastate and local shipments had been exempted from some federal regulations. The fire service has waged a long campaign to get them covered on the grounds that an explosion, leak, spill or accident poses the same danger to firefighters and citizens whether the truck is on a short haul or an interstate trip. The fire service gained support after the explosion that killed six firefighters at a road construction site in Kansas City, MO, and the use of ammonium nitrate in the Oklahoma City bombing.
The agri-business industry objected on the grounds that the regulations impose a costly burden and needless red tape on farmers and the local retailers who supply them with products used for fertilizing and pest control. Specifically, they want an exemption for trucks carrying less than eight tons of ammonium nitrate, 21/2 tons of pesticides and tanker loads of anhydrous ammonia. They also contend that these shipments move over rural roads and that some of the farmers, truck drivers and workers in the supply companies are members of volunteer fire departments and know what to do if there is a hazmat incident.
The RSPA issued its ruling in favor of the fire service in January 1997, after almost 10 years of research and debate. But that decision merely shifted the battle to Congress, where the agri-business industry - led by the Agricultural Retailers Association - turned for help to a group of farm-state senators. They tried to add amendments granting the exemption to the Department of Agriculture appropriation bill and the massive Federal Highway bill. (That's the way things are done in Congress; if you can't get through the front door, you try and slip in the back door.)
Those efforts were defeated by a coalition of fire organizations, who rallied enough Senate votes to overcome the attempt to grant "regulatory relief" to the farmers and their suppliers. Working together are the Internation-al Association of Fire Chiefs, the International Association of Fire Fighters and the National Fire Protection Association. And, despite the agri-business claim that some of its people are volunteer firefighters, the National Volunteer Fire Council firmly opposes the exemption. The fire organizations also have had strong support from the trucking industry and the Advocates for Highway & Auto Safety, a citizens lobbying group.
They need all the help they can get. Last month, the agri-business industry came back with a proposed amendment to the Department of Transportation appropriations bill and, as this is written, the outcome is uncertain. Sen. Conrad Burns (R-MT) has led the fight for the exemption and, in a letter to gain Senate votes, stated that the purpose of his amendment is "...to assure relief is provided to short-haul retailers and farmers from complying with costly regulations that are meant to address continuous long-haul movements of hazardous materials on interstate highways."
What's puzzling is why there is so much opposition to the hazmat regulation when the actual cost of a placard is only 58 cents, plus $12 for a frame to hold it on a truck? Floyd Gaibler, vice president of government affairs for the Agricultural Retailers Association, insists that cost is only part of the problem and that the chemicals in question are hauled only short distances in the spring and fall. "The biggest problem is the time required to sort out the various products and which signs and papers are required," Gaibler explains, "...our people are concerned about safety and it's another regulatory burden being put on them when they're trying to do a good job."
Fire service leaders involved in the fight suspect that the real opposition is not coming from small farmers or mom-and-pop retailers, but from big businesses who run large agricultural supply companies and those who operate the huge corporate farms that have come to dominate agriculture in many states. They point out that the chemicals in question are highly dangerous and that they are being carried on crowded highways in populated areas as well as on rural roads.
The bottom line is that firefighters have a critical need to know what's on those trucks when they respond to an incident. They cannot risk being caught by surprise. Eight tons of ammonium nitrate, 2 1/2 tons of pesticide or a tanker with anhydrous ammonia can produce a deadly hazmat disaster. And, the consequences are the same - whether it was carried in a farmer's pick-up truck, a local retailer's delivery truck or an 18-wheeler on an interstate highway. The victims are still dead.
Hal Bruno, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a political analyst with ABC News in Washington and served many years as a volunteer firefighter.