The Hot Potato of HAZMAT

America’s freight industry is in a quandary — in the years since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, it has tightened its protection of hazardous material (HAZMAT) handling and transport, yet it can’t publicize these measures for fear of tipping off terrorists or potential terrorists. Neither does it want to unduly alarm the general public about goods and activities that pose a relatively low risk to those near transportation facilities or corridors.
Many transportation officials even see the public focus on HAZMAT as distracting from other, equally important security and safety issues.
Yet, HAZMAT is a subject that very much consumes the transportation industry. For all the fears of a catastrophic terrorist attack, extremely dangerous cargo is carried every day on every form of transportation. Moving these materials is a fact of life for the nation’s ports, railroads and truckers.
And the world has to know that HAZMATsare on board. The difficulties of this were brought home in a controversy last year over whether HAZMAT placards should be removed from railroad freight cars in order to conceal their contents. Railcars, trucks and aircraft shipments have to be labeled with standard placards that show the type of hazard and United Nations (UN) number of the product or group of products in the shipment. The numbers, assigned by a UN environmental unit, can easily be looked up on the Internet or in any major library, showing, for example, that a railroad tank car or highway trailer placarded with UN number 1203 contains gasoline. In many cases, railroad tank cars dedicated to transport of a single commodity are even labeled with that commodity, such as "anhydrous ammonia."
Firefighters and responders who depend on the placards to warn them of the contents of the cars wanted the placards maintained, while security officials wanted them removed. Furthermore, the placarding requirements for border-crossing shipments are part of international agreements that could not be unilaterally terminated or ignored in one country.
Ultimately, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff decided to leave them in place, much to the satisfaction of first responders.
Port security
No one in any non-aviation mode of transportation is happy with his share of homeland security funding. All point to the intense emphasis on aviation security in the years since 9/11 and to what they regard as indifference toward other modes of transportation. But the controversy over the sale of US ports to Dubai World Ports that broke out in February also helped to focus attention on the amount of hazardous material that travels by sea. While only a small percentage of containerized goods have dangerous properties, the same is not true for bulk carriers of liquids and gases. Many of these cargos are toxic, flammable or, under the right conditions, highly explosive.
The trade association for seaports, The American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA), has held a series of news conferences complaining about the large share of transportation security funds going to aviation.
Ports have tightened access controls at their gates and hired more security personnel, and the US Coast Guard has stepped up water patrols along the docks. But many measures, such as improved video surveillance and intrusion detection systems for sensitive areas, are expensive.
But rather than a having a single-minded focus on HAZMAT, particularly when applied to general cargo container ports, many port officials would like to see more intense inspection of all types of cargo before it reaches US ports — and a means of ensuring that such cargo cannot be tampered with after inspection.
Doug Campen, director of safety and security for the North Carolina Ports Authority, which operates two ports handling international cargo (at Wilmington and Morehead City), noted that shippers and handlers of hazardous materials have always had a strong safety and security focus.
"It’s all the same," he said of the range of cargos handled at the NC facilities. "Port security has changed drastically in all areas."
Putting undue emphasis on HAZMAT would shortchange non-HAZMAT shipments that could also contain threats, he noted. A positive factor is that, since the 9/11 attacks, "Non-hazardous cargo is getting a more serious look."
Asked if post-9/11 security concerns were any different for smaller ports, such as those operated by North Carolina, Campen noted that the requirements of "the Maritime Security Act don t go by size."
But, he added that being a smaller port provides a chance for "more thorough inspection of vehicles and cargo" — something that is difficult to scale up for very large facilities.
Meanwhile, the boom in container ports is continuing, with traffic increasing to the point that many of these ports will soon be at capacity.
Both North Carolina and Alabama have announced plans for new super container ports. Several other states are looking at possible locations for new ports so that they, too, can either get or maintain a share of the container transportation business boom.
Existing container ports have evolved during the last half-century, usually from older facilities that once handled quite different types of vessels and cargo. New security measures had to be made to fit the existing infrastructure.
As new ports are designed and built, they will be the first generation of such facilities to have high-level security measures as an integral element from the beginning — a chance to consider security needs from the planning stage onward.
Traffic patterns within the ports or at terminals within the ports can be laid out to take inbound and outbound cargo through efficient manual and automated scans. Container storage areas and other facilities can be designed with an eye toward surveillance and the views offered by strategically placed cameras.
Perhaps for those facilities security will no longer be seen as an added activity, but rather as an integral part of port operations — something without which the port cannot fulfill its role in the global economy.
Less access
Railroads have become much more conscious about access to their facilities, particularly yards where cars with hazardous cargos are stored or switched. But, as every railroad official contacted by HSToday admitted under the promise of anonymity, it is essentially impossible to protect all trains in transit. And extra protective measures can be justified only for extremely hazardous cargo. But those extra security measures then call attention to the shipment.
Realistically, most railroads know they are vastly more likely to have to deal with a HAZMAT incident resulting from a transportation or industrial accident than from a terrorist act. So, for most employees, the primary emphasis is on basic safety issues, with security a secondary concern.
One step that major railroads have taken is to limit access to their databases. As the Internet became popular and railroads became more sophisticated about tracking railcars in transit, railroads initially made that data publicly available, in part to show off their tracking systems.
Enter a car identification number, and the system would tell you where it was — or at least which train it was on and the last checkpoint that the train had passed. Today, those tracking systems still exist, but are available only to railroad customers who have been issued the proper IDs and passwords.
As with ports, in manyinstances, the manufacturers, transporters and users of hazardous material are not happy with the focus that security concerns have brought on these commodities.
Tracking shipments
One approach increasingly applied to HAZMAT shipments is to track them more closely — beyond just knowing that a car has passed a given checkpoint, where its passage was recorded by a wayside scanner — using a system that has become both cheaper and more reliable.
The tracking of surface shipments using Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite data was initially developed primarily for perishable goods. It also has been applied to some high-value goods.
Relatively small devices on a trailer or container can use a GPS to determine location and report that location to a central monitoring station. Units developed for perishable goods usually also monitor the performance of climate control units on those containers, railcars or trailers.
Depending on the nature of the shipment, such devices can also be used to report attempts to tamper with the shipment. However, many attempts to breach either railcars or tanker trailers with hazardous contents would not require an attacker to get even close to the railcar or trailer.
So, more than anything else, monitoring the location of shipments provides assurance that the shipment is still moving and lets the recipient plan for its arrival.
There are no quick and easy solutions — at least not ones that don’t seriously impede commerce or travel and, in the case of passengers, make some modes of travel considerably less convenient and attractive.
With limited funds for transportation security, the search continues for both an equitable allocation system that considers vulnerabilities and spends those funds as wisely as possible.
All sectors of the transportation and travel industry need to be more concerned about measures that are effective than about measures that are highly visible. Sometimes it s just a matter of doing what has always been done a little more carefully and with more attention to detail.
Technology is a partial solution. Many established and startup companies are eager to offer their services and equipment.
But the best security measures are ones that are designed and built into work processes, facilities and equipment, rather than added on as an afterthought. Implementing these measures and designs takes time, and in some cases will be feasible only as new equipment and facilities are built.
Ernest H. Robl is a North Carolina-based writer and photographer specializing in transportation and travel subjects.
Passenger transport security
For passenger transport, federal spending is still heavily skewed toward commercial air traffic. At the same time, however, little of the air freight that goes on the same planes as passengers is subjected to the same screening as passenger’ luggage.
Some hazardous materials are prohibited from being carried on the same aircraft as passengers — so-called "cargo aircraft only" commodities. But as investigations of some air crashes have revealed, these rules are not always enforced, and, without strict enforcement, both intentional and inadvertent violations could get through.
Local and regional transit systems, desperate to find something to do to demonstrate their concerns about security, ended up banning photography not just on their property but even around and of their property — which quickly led to legal challenges and ill will from the railroad and transit enthusiast community, as well as from some transit users. Most of these bans have been abandoned because they were found unworkable, particularly considering that most of the images that authorities tried to prevent were already widely available in books and on the Internet. And a really determined terrorist scout would probably have managed to make surreptitious photos despite the ban.
Nonetheless, progress is being made in major terminals for all modes of transportation, with lessons learned from Israel and the United Kingdom, both of which have substantial experience with terrorism.
People are actually thinking about the locations and types of trash receptacles that could be used to hide a bomb. Amtrak, for example, has placed a large order for trash receptacles specifically designed to contain both blasts and fragments from explosives from BlastGard International, Clearwater, Fla.
Local and transit police are more in evidence, and plainclothes officers — from sky marshals to local officers — ride on a variety of transport forms. But an attempt to bring airport-type security measures to various forms of passenger rail proved ineffective, given the high volumes of passengers.
"See something, say something," Amtraks posters at passenger rail terminals urge. Keeping passengers alert for unusual activity or unattended objects is generally considered the best security tactic for bus and rail systems where individual security screenings cannot be used.

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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