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NTSB member testifies before Congress about hazmat transportation safety concerns (5/15)

May 15, 2009
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National Transportation Safety Board Member Deborah A.P. Hersman testified yesterday before Congress about the safety of hazardous materials transportation, according to an NTSB press release. She focused her testimony on the transportation of lithium batteries, the use of wet lines on tanker trucks, and the loading and unloading of hazardous materials from tank trucks and railroad tank cars.

Testifying before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials, Hersman said that the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) has failed to act on NTSB recommendations to address these safety issues.

The NTSB has recommended that PHMSA require reporting of all incidents involving lithium battery fires, that failed batteries be retained and examined, and that exemptions allowing transportation of some lithium batteries without proper labeling be eliminated. Lithium batteries are commonly found in watches, cameras, cell phones and laptop computers. Failed batteries can ignite spontaneously, posing a safety hazard when they are transported in aviation. The NTSB investigated a fire that destroyed two cargo pallets at Los Angeles International Airport in 1999, and another fire in 2006 that destroyed a cargo aircraft in Philadelphia. Although the second case could not be directly tied to lithium batteries, the accident prompted the Board to closely examine the issue.

“As the popularity of electronic equipment has increased,” Hersman said, “so has the number of incidents of lithium battery fires in transportation. An in-depth analysis of the causes of lithium battery failures would improve the safe transportation of these batteries.”

On the issue of wet lines on tanker trucks, Hersman noted that PHMSA has not taken steps to eliminate wet lines, even though the Department of Transportation stated 20 years ago that allowing gasoline to be transported in wet lines was “unreasonable” and “illogical.” Wet lines on tanker trucks are found underneath the liquid tanks, and are unprotected from collisions with other vehicles. Hersman noted that the NTSB has demonstrated in tests that these unprotected wet lines are susceptible to damage in collisions with most types of vehicles on the roads today. These collisions can lead to spillage of up to 50 gallons of a flammable product, like gasoline, which may catch fire.

The NTSB investigated eight accidents involving loading and unloading of hazardous materials from tank trucks and railroad tank cars in the five years ending in 2003. The accidents caused evacuations, injuries, and in some cases, fatalities. The Safety Board found inadequate federal enforcement of safety requirements and procedures. Hersman said that the NTSB continues to urge PHMSA to exert more effective oversight of these operations.

A copy of Hersman’s testimony may be found on the NTSB Web site at http://www.ntsb.gov/speeches/hersman/Testimony_Hersman_090514.pdf.

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