Consultant Corner

TSA Eyes Hazmat Shipment Tracking.

By Richard P. Schweitzer, Esq.

Like a bad penny, sometimes a bad idea comes back for reconsideration in Washington. In the early 1990s, Congressman Douglas Applegate of Ohio proposed legislation to create a centralized computer database to house information on all shipments of hazardous materials by truck. His idea was for every shipper to send an electronic notice to a central government computer each day with information on every shipment of hazardous materials requiring a placard, including the types and amounts of hazardous materials and the route to be taken.

Rep. Applegate’s idea was that if any shipment was lost in transit due to criminal or terrorist activity, the database could tell us where the shipment was supposed to be and whether it had arrived at its destination. But companies already knew when their shipments did not arrive on time, and the legislation would have imposed a huge administrative burden on shippers (along with a per-transaction fee to file the reports). Also, there was no one in government who would be able to use the data in the system to any beneficial effect – but it would provide a ripe target for computer hackers to find out who was shipping what products where.

GAWDA (then the National Welding Supply Association) fought the legislation along with virtually all other shippers and carriers of hazardous materials, and the proposal never became law.

2007 Legislation

Fast forward to 2007, and Congress did pass a more targeted version of the same concept. Section 1554 of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007 directs the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to “develop a program to facilitate the tracking of motor carrier shipments of security-sensitive materials and to equip such vehicles with technology that provides:

  • (A) frequent or continuous communications
  • (B) vehicle position location and tracking capabilities; and
  • (C) a feature that allows a driver of such vehicles to broadcast an emergency distress signal.

Although the TSA does not interpret this language to mandate any new regulations, the agency has contracted with the University of Kentucky Transportation Center to conduct research on such a tracking system. The destination for the research is not a surprise – Rep. Hal Rogers of Kentucky was chair of the House Appropriations Committee when the legislation was passed and the grant established.

Subject to a later congressional directive, TSA limited its analysis to Tier I Highway Safety Sensitive Materials (HSSM) – primarily those materials that are explosives, poisonous by inhalation, toxics, radioactives or chemical weapons. TSA estimates there are approximately 1 – 2 million affected HSSM shipments each year. And although the 2007 mandate directed TSA to complete its analysis within six months, the agency is just now (10 years later) getting serious about developing and testing a tracking program, which it calls Fedtrak.

for interested parties. I attended, along with representatives of most major trucking companies and organizations and hazmat shippers groups. The workshop included discussions of appropriate communications devices, existing vehicle-tracking technology, and the costs and benefits of voluntary use of such technology. The contractor is expected to take at least two more years to complete the proposed system design and to field test the system.

No Sense Today

None of the industry representatives at the workshop thought Fedtrak made any sense in today’s environment. We still think that companies do a better job than the government of tracking their security-sensitive shipments, and we were not convinced that any of the contractor’s proposed security enhancements would actually improve security. Moreover, more than two decades after Rep. Applegate’s proposal, we are even more certain today that a federal database of HSSM shipments would be hacked by terrorists or others looking to harm our national interests.

Even though TSA has stated it will not use the results of the Fedtrak project to impose new regulations on hazmat shippers or carriers, the next Congress or administration might change that policy decision and even broaden the scope of the program beyond the most highly sensitive materials.

GAWDA’s Government Affairs team will continue to monitor this effort as it progresses, and work with like-minded associations to ensure that the government does not “help” you maintain the security of your hazmat transportation.

Richard P. Schweitzer, esq.

GAWDA’s Government Affairs and Human Resources Legal Consultant Rick Schweitzer is president of Richard P. Schweitzer PPLC in Washington DC. He is also GAWDA’s general counsel. Members can reach him at 202-223-3040 and rpschweitzer@rpslegal.com.