Transporting Hazardous Materials: The Rules & Organizations That Oversee It

December 15, 2021

By a Biometrica staffer

In October, the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA) released findings of its surprise inspection initiative over the summer, which cracked down on safety issues related to the transport of hazardous materials and dangerous goods (HM/DG) as part of this year’s “Road Blitz.” What that unannounced inspection drive showed was that of the 10,905 commercial motor vehicles (CMVs) and 8,363 HM/DG packages inspected in the U.S. and Canada, 2,714 violations were reported.

As part of that inspection initiative, CMV inspectors in Canada, Mexico and the U.S. carried out 13,471 inspections of vehicles transporting HM/DGs. Governments in all three countries have strict inspection and enforcement programs to ensure compliance with regulations regarding the transportation of HM/DG. Experts say drivers transporting HM/DG have to be constantly trained and re-trained, so they’re fully aware of the requirements for hauling hazmat loads. In this piece, we give you a brief introduction to the kind of regulations that govern the transportation of HM/DG.

When it comes to the U.S., it is the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) that are responsible for regulating and ensuring the safe and secure movement of hazardous materials. Needless to say, it’s important to both have rules governing the transportation of HM/DG and to make sure they are followed. Doing this is crucial to keep everyone from the driver of the vehicle to the wider public and the environment safe.

The Federal Hazmat Law

In terms of laws, it is the Federal Hazardous Materials Transportation law (the Federal hazmat law) 49 U.S.C. § 5101, that is the basic statute regulating the transport of hazardous materials in the country. The purpose of the law, as defined in its own terms, is to “protect against the risks to life, property, and the environment that are inherent in the transportation of hazardous material in intrastate, interstate, and foreign commerce.”

Section 5103 under that law provides that the Secretary of Transportation shall:

  • Designate material (including an explosive, radioactive material,
    infectious substance, flammable or combustible liquid, solid or
    gas, toxic, oxidizing or corrosive material, and compressed gas)
    or a group or class of material as hazardous, when the Secretary
    determines that transporting the material in commerce in a particular
    amount and form may pose an unreasonable risk to health and
    safety or property; and
  • Issue regulations for the safe transportation, including security, of
    hazardous material in intrastate, interstate, and foreign commerce.

As we mentioned above, in the U.S., it is the PHMSA and the FMCSA that are tasked with making sure regulations regarding the transportation of hazardous materials are followed. It is the PHMSA’s responsibility to issue Hazardous Materials Regulations (HMR). The PHMSA’s duties also include:

  • Issuing rules and regulations governing the safe transportation of
    hazardous materials
  • Issuing, renewing, modifying, and terminating special permits
  • Issuing, modifying, and terminating approvals for specific activities
  • Receiving, reviewing, and maintaining important records (for example,
    incident reports); and,
  • Making (or issuing) administrative determinations whether State,
    local, or Indian tribe requirements:
    ◊ are preempted by the Federal hazmat law, or
    ◊ may remain in effect, under a waiver of preemption.
  • Representing Department of Transportation (DOT) in international organizations and working to assure the compatibility of domestic regulations with the regulations of bodies such as:
    ◊ International Maritime Organization (IMO),
    ◊ International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO),
    ◊ United Nations Subcommittee of Experts on the Transport of Dangerous Goods and on the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals; and
    ◊ International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Meanwhile, the FMCSA issues regulations concerning highway routing of hazardous materials, the hazardous materials endorsement for a commercial driver’s license, highway hazardous material safety permits, and financial responsibility requirements for motor carriers of hazardous materials. Other organizations also play a role, per a DOT-PMH.

For instance, the Federal Railroad Administration’s (FRA) Hazardous Materials Division administers a safety program that oversees the movement of hazardous materials across the U.S. rail transportation system, including shipments transported to and from international organizations. FRA is responsible for enforcing federal rail and hazardous materials safety laws and regulations by rail.

Similarly, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issues regulations covering hazardous materials which are part of the required aircraft equipment. FAA also regulates the transportation of radioactive materials on passenger-carrying aircraft when the material is intended for use in, or incident to, research or medical diagnosis or treatment. The United States Coast Guard (USCG) regulates the bulk transportation of hazardous materials that are loaded or carried on board a vessel without benefit of containers or labels, and received and handled by the vessel without mark or count. USCG also regulates ships’ stores and supplies.

Enforcement authority under the Federal hazmat law is shared by PHMSA, FMCSA, FRA, FAA, and USCG. Each of these agencies has authority to enforce the HMR against any person subject to the HMR, but each has a particular emphasis to its enforcement activities.

Enforcement Sanctions

According to the Federal hazmat law, there are various enforcement sanctions that the agencies we mentioned above can undertake. The Secretary may investigate, conduct tests, make reports, issue subpoenas, conduct hearings, require the production of records and property, take depositions and conduct research, development, demonstration, and training activities. Other sanctions include:

  • Notice and opportunity for hearings — Per this sanction, the DOT may find that a person has violated the Federal hazmat law, or a regulation, order, special permit, or approval issued under the Federal hazmat law, only after notice and an opportunity for a hearing.
  • Civil penalties — There are penalties for knowingly violating regulations, including: a minimum penalty of $250 per violation, except training violations that are subject to a $450 minimum penalty; a maximum assessment of $50,000 per violation per day, except $100,000 if violation results in death, serious illness, or severe injury to any person, or substantial destruction of property.
  • Compliance orders — The Secretary may issue an order requiring compliance with the Federal hazmat law, or an order, special permit, or approval issued under law.
  • Criminal penalties — For willful or reckless violations, up to $250,000 and five years imprisonment could be issued against an individual, and up to $500,000 for a corporation. For those willful violations resulting in the release of a hazardous material that results in death or bodily injury, the criminal penalty can be up to 10 years’ imprisonment.
  • Civil action in federal court — The U.S. Attorney General may bring civil penalty action in U.S. District Court, which may result in an injunction, punitive damages, and assessment of civil penalties considering the same penalty amounts and factors as prescribed in an administrative case.