Wetlines proposal is dj vu economics voodoo

Feb. 1, 2011
AS I READ the latest wetlines proposal from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA,) I was reminded of a famous photo of longtime

AS I READ the latest wetlines proposal from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA,) I was reminded of a famous photo of longtime Richard Nixon secretary Rosemary Woods who, during Watergate controversy, looked like a contortionist as she demonstrated how she might have accidently erased 18 and one-half minutes of secretly recorded conversations that could sink a Presidency.

Surely the dedicated safety professionals at PHMSA must have felt similarly contorted as they were compelled by political pressures to attempt to justify a regulatory proposal that their agency had withdrawn just a few years ago on sound cost and safety benefit grounds. They had to ignore solid facts to fit a discredited theory — to put old wine in a cheapened new bottle.

The back-flipping bureaucratic bean-counters had to increase the benefits and decrease the costs. To increase the benefit side, they relied on “sensitivity analysis” which led them to cite a 2004 report that hypothesized expensive gasoline would lead to more carpooling. Thus, more carpooling would put more people in cars resulting in an increased likelihood that more people would be killed in the admittedly rare wetlines crash (up from 1.6 deaths to three deaths per incident.)

With perhaps less sensitivity, I suggest a probably equally specious conclusion that more carpooling and the move to electric vehicles would mean fewer gasoline-powered cars on the road, thus less need for tanker loads of gasoline resulting in reduced overall exposure to potential wetlines accidents. But I am not a federal economist forced to make two plus two equal six.

Just as I do not blame Rosemary Woods for Watergate, I do not blame the bureaucrats who had to draft this unnecessary rulemaking. Do not shoot the messenger as we once again fight to debunk the message.

“Why is this back again?” The answer is simple: Politics. “But didn't the Republicans take back the House?” Yes, but this woefully lame wetlines horse had already left the regulatory barn.

Before reviewing Wetlines: The Sequel, let's look back briefly. In the last Congress, certain members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee went on a mission to destroy PHMSA. “Wetlines” became a tool in this mission to prove “coziness” between the agency and the industries it so successfully regulates.

Added to the intense pressure from the Hill were two outstanding (noun, not adjective) Recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) telling PHMSA to ban wetlines based on an erroneous report NTSB developed following its investigation of a 1997 fatal accident in Yonkers, New York. A motorist broadsided a petroleum tanker while travelling at approximately 45 miles an hour. An engineering consultant study paid for by NTTC members in 2004 demonstrated that the car in the Yonkers incident was travelling at least 17 miles an hour faster than needed to impinge the cargo tank compartment. That accident and fire would have happened even if the loading lines had been dry. NTTC continues to ask NTSB to withdraw or reopen that accident report.

So, where are we now? As you probably know by now if you belong to NTTC or receive Bulk Transporter and the Bulk Logistics Trends electronic newsletter, the final rule would allow no more than .26 gallon of flammable product in loading lines on new trailers constructed two years after the effective date, and no more than .26 gallon of product on any trailer 12 years after the effective date. The proposed rule does exempt most straight trucks and certain products like fuel oil that can be reclassified as combustible liquids. Typical of regulations written inside the Beltway, it does not address equipment such as truck and trailer combinations or Michigan-style trailers. The authors of this rule must believe all tractors have three axles and pull two-axle semi-trailers.

NTTC and our allies will again show that the proposed regulation is bogus on both economic and safety grounds. We will again show that the retrofit the regulation would mandate on existing trailers could well kill more cargo tank shop workers than it ever will prevent fatalities of motorists who plow into the side of gasoline trailers. We will again question the folly of mandating some kind of wetlines removal system that was built to no regulatory standard.

We will again point out the disruption this regulation will cause tank trailer manufacturers and the tank truck industry. I predict a significant pre-buy before this regulation goes into effect. We will again point out that, “The solution, my dear PHMSA, lies at the loading rack, not on the trailer.”

NTTC and your peers that support your industry's representative in Washington need your help now. Comments are due on March 28. We face a politically-motivated challenge that will, in part, require a political response. Let us once and for all drive a stake through this misquided monster of many lives. (You can find a copy of the proposed rule and other information on the wetlines issue at www.tanktruck.org.)

Conley is president of National Tank Truck Carriers Inc.

About the Author

John Conley | President

John Conley established ConleyComm LLC where he develops written and oral communications on trucking and hazardous materials industry and regulatory issues.  He also is a member of trucking industry safety groups.

John  is Past President of National Tank Truck Carriers, the trade association that represents more than 200 highway transporters of commodities in bulk as well as nearly 300 suppliers to that industry. He retired from NTTC in December 2013. He joined NTTC in 1989 after serving as editor of Modern Bulk Transporter magazine for 12 years.  He is a past member of the Board of the Dangerous Goods Advisory Council, the Transportation Research Board’s Committee on the Transportation of Hazardous Materials, and the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance Hazardous Materials Committee.  He also served on the TRANSCAER National Steering Committee. Conley holds a Masters Degree in Journalism from the University of Maryland and is a veteran of the U. S. Navy.  He is currently writing a book on the history of the tank truck industry.