Hazmat Threat Keeps on Truckin': Rules, Procedure Make Transport of Toxins Explosives Safer, Keep Fatalities Low

By Koren, Leslie | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 6, 1999 | Go to article overview

Hazmat Threat Keeps on Truckin': Rules, Procedure Make Transport of Toxins Explosives Safer, Keep Fatalities Low


Koren, Leslie, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Thousands of trucks carrying everything from gasoline to explosives to spent nuclear fuel rumble along U.S. highways each day, with potential disaster a mere hairpin turn away.

Nearly a decade ago, a Montgomery County truck accident that closed Interstate 270 for 20 hours prompted politicians and commuter leaders to clamor for restrictions on trucks carrying hazardous freight through or around metropolitan Washington.

But it's difficult, if not impossible, for localities to ban certain types of cargo from all roads. Virginia has tried but failed to ban trash from its highways. Hazardous materials can be limited because of immediate safety concerns - there are bridges, tunnels and steep or narrow roads from which they're barred - but attempts to impose broader restrictions routinely run afoul of courts enforcing interstate commerce laws.

On multiple occasions in recent years, and as recently as Wednesday, Maryland and Virginia have narrowly escaped major disasters when trucks hauling hazardous materials have plowed into problems on Washington area interstates - among the nation's busiest. Commuters have been less fortunate.

In last week's mishap, an accident and its aftermath at the Springfield interchange, only the driver's training and the proper packaging of the hazardous materials (hazmats) kept destruction at bay.

A tractor-trailer carrying 34,000 pounds of black powder overturned on the Springfield "Mixing Bowl," where Interstates 95, 395 and the Capital Beltway converge. Firefighters periodically closed the highways for 19 hours as they worked to clear the scene, paralyzing the morning and evening commuter rushes.

No one was hurt, and none of the explosive powder leaked.

"It was a textbook example of things going right," said Jonathan Collom , president of the Hazardous Materials Advisory Council.

Motorists and some politicians criticized the Fairfax Fire and Rescue Department for being overly cautious. Firefighters painstakingly researched the explosive and waited for experts to arrive from as far away as Pennsylvania before beginning the removal.

"These types of incidents really come down to a waiting game - waiting for resources, waiting for expertise," said Dan Schmidt, spokesman for the department.

Mr. Schmidt attributed the success of the cleanup effort to the firefighters' adherence to procedures that dictate the handling and transportation of hazmats.

"I know a lot of commuters don't agree with me, but any truck could have tipped over. It happened to be one carrying explosive materials," said Mr. Collom.

"It was properly marked on the exterior. The driver notified the proper authorities right away, and when they opened the truck, they found it was packaged and marked appropriately. They removed it cautiously and none of it leaked."

Less than 30 days before, on May 5, authorities closed an I-95 exit in Thornburg, in Spotsylvania County, Va., when alpha methyl furfuryl alcohol leaked from a truck's cargo. A nearby service station also closed because fumes from the chemical are toxic and flammable.

On May 4, 1997, an overturned tanker truck spilled about 7,000 gallons of gasoline on the Capital Beltway between Gallows Road and Little River Turnpike in Annandale, Fairfax County. The highway was closed for nearly 11 hours.

Traffic backed up more than 20 miles on I-95 in August 1990 after a tractor-trailer carrying more than 14,000 pounds of hydrogen peroxide-ammonium biflouride mix and 55 gallons of petroleum naphtha overturned and began leaking.

Five hundred gallons leaked, and the highway was shut for 10 hours.

On Dec. 14, 1989, a tractor-trailer loaded with battery acids, two pesticides, propane, petroleum ether and other flammable gases and liquids overturned on Interstate 270 near the Capital Beltway.

About 150 homes were evacuated, the road was closed for nearly 20 hours and officials - from Congress to Montgomery County Council - expressed concern about increasing numbers of trucks and hazardous cargoes passing through metropolitan Washington.

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Hazmat Threat Keeps on Truckin': Rules, Procedure Make Transport of Toxins Explosives Safer, Keep Fatalities Low
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