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Truckers Targeted in Hazardous-Material Rules

May 03, 2003|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The USA Patriot Act gave the government expanded powers to spy on citizens, lock up immigrants and freeze the assets of charities.

Now, it is generating some real controversy.

On Friday, 18 months after the anti-terrorism law was enacted, transportation security officials finally announced implementation of one of its last major features: criminal background checks for truck drivers who haul hazardous materials.

The requirement was inserted in the law after Sept. 11 because of concerns about terrorist hijackings of big rigs and a growing trade in phony driver's licenses.

But the road to implementing the law has been a bumpy one, marked by a feud between regulators over their post-Sept. 11 powers, and lobbying by the trucking industry, which objected to the idea of the government digging into drivers' personal lives.

About 3.5 million truckers have licenses to haul hazardous materials. About 800,000 such shipments are made every day.

In January, the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms & Explosives, an arm of the Justice Department, tried to issue its own set of safety rules for truck drivers when it appeared that transportation regulators were dragging their feet.

Truckers helped kill the initiative, arguing that the ATF was abusing its authority. A group of Canadian trucking firms even pressed its case with the State Department, arguing that the ATF rules threatened a major trading partner.

That cleared the way Friday for the Transportation Security Administration, an arm of the Department of Homeland Security, to issue its background check rules, which in general, are slightly weaker than the ATF proposal.

The episode shows how efforts to reorganize federal agencies to combat terrorism can ironically lead to some delays.

It also shows the pull of industry groups in influencing government in the post-Sept. 11 world. The truckers say that influence only goes so far. They say the new rules are still onerous, and question whether they will be effective in preventing terrorist acts. Regulators already have been taking other steps to enhance safety, such as forcing more trucks into weigh stations for cargo inspections.

"I am not sure how much those regulations are going to prevent a determined terrorist," said Fred McLuckie, legislative director for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

Still, the Sept. 11 attacks coalesced with long-held concern about how well states have implemented federal standards for testing and licensing truck drivers. Around the same time, 20 Middle Eastern men were charged with fraudulently obtaining licenses to haul hazardous cargo in Michigan and Illinois. The FBI also put out several alerts about the possibility of terrorists using trucks.

In January, the ATF got into the act, deciding that a new federal law putting new restrictions on people who could possess explosives, applied to truckers.

Truckers quickly mobilized against the law. The Canadian Trucking Alliance went on the offensive first, after the ATF signaled that it would include Canadians among "aliens" prohibited under the new law from handling explosives, effectively shutting them out of the lucrative U.S. market. Ultimately, the Justice Department was asked to weigh in with its legal opinion. It decided that transportation authorities should have first crack at implementing the rules.

Under the TSA rules, which go into effect Monday, states would be prohibited from issuing so-called hazardous materials endorsements for commercial licenses until the TSA conducts background checks, including a review of criminal, immigration, and FBI records.

Any applicant with a conviction for certain violent felonies in the last seven years -- including espionage, terrorism and murder -- will be barred from obtaining or renewing a hazardous-materials permit. The truckers said they are generally pleased with the result. "We are already a highly regulated industry. We do not need another master," said Rich Moskowitz, the regulatory affairs counsel for the American Trucking Assn.

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