Congress threatening to raise wetlines rule from the dead

May 1, 2009
Almost three years ago, petroleum haulers felt confident that they had finally put an end to the misguided effort to mandate wetlines purging systems

Almost three years ago, petroleum haulers felt confident that they had finally put an end to the misguided effort to mandate wetlines purging systems on tank trailers. Unfortunately, liberals in Congress and at the National Transportation Safety Board seem determined to resurrect the mandate, much like a zombie in a B-grade movie.

Democrat majority members and staff at the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee are pushing some type of ban on wetlines as part of the reauthorization of the Hazardous Materials Transportation Act, through which Congress grants authority for the Department of Transportation to regulate hazmat transportation.

A hearing on the wetlines issue was held in mid-May by the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure's Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials. That's the subcommittee that would draft a wetlines amendment for inclusion in the massive Highway Reauthorization Bill that is currently under discussion.

Speakers at the subcommittee hearing in mid-May included Deborah Hersman, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). Wetlines were among three NTSB issues she raised during her presentation. The others were the loading and unloading of hazardous materials from rail tankcars and highway cargo tanks and air transportation of lithium batteries.

In her presentation, Hersman cited just two purported wetlines incidents to support her argument that exposed product lines on cargo tanks pose a serious and widespread threat to public safety. She admitted during questioning that NTSB had no statistics on wetlines-related injuries or deaths to back up her accusations.

Hersman tried to claim that wetlines incidents are underreported, but that is a hollow argument. The fact is true wetlines incidents are very rare events. That was the case back in 1989 when Department of Transportation agencies launched their first effort to regulate wetlines. They never could justify the need for a wetlines ban, and they finally dropped the regulatory effort in 2006.

The most recent data from the DOT's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) identified just two wetlines incidents over the past six-and-a-half years. Of the two incidents reported, one involved the loss of just one gallon of product. No cargo was lost in the other incident.

When PHMSA announced in the June 7, 2006 Federal Register that it was ending the wetlines rulemaking effort contained in HM-213B, administrators acknowledged that “In the final analysis, we did not identify a cost-effective approach for addressing the risk of wetlines transportation through regulatory action.”

The cost justification has not changed in favor of a regulation that would prohibit retained product in exposed piping (wetlines) on petroleum tank trailers. In fact, there probably is less cost justification today.

Any regulation probably would require the use of expensive and technologically complex systems to purge gasoline and other fuels from the product lines. Mandating these systems on new cargo tanks probably would lead to a significant reduction in new tank manufacturing and sales, which would badly hurt tank builders.

A new-tank mandate would be bad enough, but a retrofit requirement could financially devastate petroleum haulers that already are suffering through the worst recession in decades. The industry currently operates at least 26,000 tank trailers, according to data collected by National Tank Truck Carriers.

However, the equipment investment cost is nothing compared with the risk that would be posed by a retrofit requirement. Cargo tank repair shops would have the unenviable task of carrying out a retrofit. The process would require cutting and welding on cargo tanks that have been in service for many years. This is a recipe for disaster.

It is hard to estimate how many tank repair shop workers would be injured or killed during a retrofit campaign. However, there is little doubt that many more people could be hurt or killed during the retrofit process than would be saved by the wetlines purging systems.

Unfortunately, logic doesn't seem to mean much in Congress right now. Wetlines have become a political issue, and the facts are being obscured by the politics. By all accounts, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure will move forward quickly on various hazmat issues, including the potential wetlines mandate.

Members of the tank industry have very little time to take action on the wetlines issue. It is critically important to immediately contact members of Congress, especially those on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials. Fleets also need to support organizations — such as National Tank Truck Carriers Inc and Petroleum Marketers Association of America — that represent them in Washington DC.

Everything must be done to help elected representatives to understand that a wetlines regulation would impose an unreasonable burden on the tank truck industry with virtually no improvement in safety. Such a requirement is just a bad idea.

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About the Author

Charles Wilson

Charles E. Wilson has spent 20 years covering the tank truck, tank container, and storage terminal industries throughout North, South, and Central America. He has been editor of Bulk Transporter since 1989. Prior to that, Wilson was managing editor of Bulk Transporter and Refrigerated Transporter and associate editor of Trailer/Body Builders. Before joining the three publications in Houston TX, he wrote for various food industry trade publications in other parts of the country. Wilson has a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and served three years in the U.S. Army.