WASHINGTON — Amid increasing concern about hazardous chemicals being shipped on the nation's highways, a House subcommittee will open hearings this week on proposals to tighten controls over the practice.
In the following week, the hearings will move to Los Angeles, where officials are seeking to ban the shipment of potentially deadly rocket fuel that has been routinely trucked through the heavily populated San Fernando Valley to Vandenberg Air Force Base in Lompoc.
The federal Transportation Department is responsible for overseeing shipments of hazardous chemicals on the nation's highways, but records show that thousands of toxic chemicals are trucked every day over major freeways without federal knowledge or control.
Could Cause Fatalities
Many of these chemicals could cause massive fatalities if accidentally spilled, experts say.
"It makes you wonder who is minding the store when it comes to the movement of such dangerous chemicals," said Rep. Cardiss Collins (D-Ill.), whose House subcommittee will hold the hearings here and on Oct. 19 in Los Angeles.
Federal officials, while acknowledging shortcomings in the way they regulate the highway transport of hazardous materials, say they are taking steps to gain tighter control.
"We have an enviable record," said Alan Roberts, who directs the Transportation Department's hazardous transport section, "especially when you consider the billions of tons that are shipped on the freeways."
With more than 426,000 trucks shipping chemicals over the nation's highways, there have been 54 deaths reported nationwide in the last 10 years as a result of hazardous materials accidents. The number of incidents, ranging from major freeway spills to minor chemical releases, declined from 14,835 in 1977 to 4,546 last year.
Inadequate Protection Charged
But critics such as Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) say the Transportation Department has failed to adequately protect the public from the estimated 927 million tons of hazardous chemicals trucked annually. The Reagan Administration's determination to deregulate the trucking industry, he charges, has left it unwilling to ensure the safety of shipments of hazardous chemicals.
In one Southern California case, for example, the Transportation Department gave truckers permission to haul a lethal chemical called liquid cryogenic fluorine to TRW laboratories in San Clemente several times a year along congested freeways in Orange and Riverside counties, even though alternative routes are available through less populated areas.
Separately, Los Angeles officials began trying to ban the shipment of a rocket fuel, nitrogen tetroxide, after The Times reported last month that the Air Force regularly trucked the fuel through the San Fernando Valley. The Defense Department agreed to halt transports for 60 days, but there has been no agreement on a permanent ban on the chemical, whose fumes may be fatal if inhaled.
Elsewhere, some state and local governments have passed their own restrictions. That, in turn, has led to a nationwide patchwork of confusing, parochial bans on chemical shipments that pit neighboring communities against each other and frequently trigger lawsuits from the trucking industry.
Congressional critics, private experts, local government officials, trucking industry leaders and chemical firms have urged that the Transportation Department more diligently enforce the 1975 Hazardous Materials Transport Act, which gave the department power to:
--Issue specific guidelines for local governments, chemical companies and trucking firms on the routes to be chosen for shipping dangerous chemicals.
National Data Bank
--Develop a national data bank on the amounts of chemicals being transported over the highways, the firms that ship the materials and the routes they take.
--Help train local police and fire officials on the proper response to chemical spills.
None of these goals has been fully met, according to a 1986 report by the Office of Technology Assessment, a research arm of Congress. Researchers said Transportation Department officials have concentrated on developing tough regulations for the packaging of dangerous materials during shipment but concluded that far more had to be done to allay growing public concerns.
The highway routing issue is perhaps the most controversial of all.
Beyond a vaguely written 1939 federal statute urging drivers to avoid populated areas, there are no federal guidelines for truckers and chemical manufacturers. More important, the majority of shippers are not required to tell government officials which routes they use.
Few Changes Made
Even when the Transportation Department has an opportunity to inspect and approve routes, there is little inclination to change them for safety purposes, said Fred Millar, a hazardous materials expert for the Environmental Policy Institute in Washington.