WASHINGTON — Voicing concerns over "potential Bhopals rolling down our highways," a congressional subcommittee opened hearings Wednesday on the federal government's regulation of toxic chemicals that are shipped every day on freeways across the nation, sometimes through heavily populated areas.
Although the hearing focused on recent disclosures of rocket fuel shipments through metropolitan Los Angeles, it also dealt with "a growing national problem . . . a concern that affects anyone who lives near a freeway these days," said Rep. Cardiss Collins (D-Ill.), who chairs the panel.
Six Southern California congressmen attended the hearing and expressed opposition to the Air Force's shipment of nitrogen tetroxide, a highly toxic chemical, through the San Fernando Valley, even though Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley and Defense Department officials announced Tuesday that the rocket fuel shipments would no longer be sent through the area.
'Tip of the Iceberg'
"That (agreement) is an important first step," Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City) told the Governmental Operations subcommittee on government activities and transportation. "But what about the hundreds of other chemicals that we don't know about that come through our area? This is just the tip of the iceberg."
Under sometimes blistering questions from panel members, Transportation Department officials, who regulate such shipments, conceded that they do not know about most of the shipments around the nation and almost never enforce a federal guideline urging that such dangerous cargoes stay away from populated areas.
"In most cases, we think these routing decisions should be state responsibilities," said Alan Roberts, who directs the department's hazardous materials section. "We have been working cooperatively with the states to do just that, to help them make these decisions."
However, Rep. Gerald D. Kleczka (D-Wis.) pointed out that it has been difficult for states to make such decisions because they are rarely told about the chemical shipments the federal government and private industry make by truck. The Transportation Department, he said, "has not given us the leadership we need on this issue."
Another witness said the department's habit of reporting its decisions about permits for chemical shipments solely in the Federal Register, a daily compendium of federal laws and proposed regulations, was "not much of an outreach program."
Fred Millar of the Environmental Policy Institute in Washington said: "Most people are living in blissful ignorance of these shipments. It's not enough to print this in the pages of the (Federal) Register. The mayor of Los Angeles doesn't read this every day."
Committee members also questioned Roberts about his agency's approval of the routes used to ship nitrogen tetroxide through Los Angeles to Vandenberg Air Force Base in Lompoc. In particular, they asked why the department approved a permit for the shipments, even though the Air Force did not provide requested information about alternative routes that could be used.
Roberts said the department almost never requests route information, and he explained that "we were experimenting on the Air Force" by seeking data about the Los Angeles routes. The methodology for determining the safest route for such shipments is very complex, and as a result "this has been a learning process" for the agency, he added.
Sought to Improve Safety
Moreover, it would have been wrong for the department to halt the shipments temporarily, Roberts said, because the agency was mainly seeking "incremental improvements in safety."
Other panel members said the military fuels shipped through Southern California played an important role in the national defense, and they praised the trucking industry for compiling a good safety record over the last 20 years. Still, they expressed concern about the shipments of an estimated 920 million tons of hazardous chemicals through the nation every year.
"I know that the trucking industry has compiled a safe track record," said Rep. Howard C. Nielson (R-Utah). "But that's easy to overlook, particularly when we're confronted with reports of potential Bhopals rolling down our highways."
An estimated 2,000 people were killed and nearly 500,000 were injured in the Bhopal, India, disaster after deadly gas leaked from a Union Carbide, India Ltd., pesticide plant on Dec. 3, 1984, and spread over the sleeping city. The company's managing director reported that the gas had escaped for 40 minutes before the leak was stopped. By then, the cloud of colorless, poisonous gas known as methyl isocyanate had settled over a 25-square-mile area.
The panel's next meeting is scheduled Monday in Los Angeles, where state and local officials and Defense Department aides are scheduled to appear.