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Report: Agency waives rules for hazmat shippers

Joan Lowy
AP Writer

Washington — A House committee chairman Thursday demanded a shake-up at the agency that regulates the transport of hazardous materials, saying officials for years have quietly waived safety rules because of a cozy relationship with industry.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration — which regulates more than 1 million daily shipments of potentially dangerous cargo by land, sea and air — has routinely granted or renewed waivers of rules without attempting to find out whether shippers had been involved in accidents or were cited for violations, according to investigations by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the Transportation Department’s inspector general.

The agency’s “culture appears plagued by a belief that it should make things as easy as possible for the industry that it should be regulating,” Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., the committee’s chairman, said at a hearing.

“It’s clear this agency’s relationship with the industry it regulates needs to be completely overhauled. Its current state is unacceptable to say the least,” Oberstar said.

Calvin Scovel, the inspector general, told the committee he warned Obama administration officials in late July that an investigation by his office had uncovered significant concerns about the handling of waivers. He cited a company that was granted a waiver in 2004 despite having 321 prior safety incidents and five prior enforcement violations. He said the company’s permit was renewed two years later despite the fact that the firm had an additional 26 incidents and five more enforcement violations.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration is part of the Transportation Department.

Deputy Transportation Secretary John Porcari told the committee that he and Secretary Ray LaHood, who took over the department in February, have begun taking steps to correct the problems identified by investigators.

The agency regulates the transport of explosives, toxic chemicals, and fireworks, among others hazardous materials.

Officials have granted about 1,250 active waivers known as special permits and another 118,000 written permissions known as approvals that are required for actions involving hazardous materials that regulations otherwise prohibit, Scovel said.

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