Keeping Hazardous Materials on Straight and Safe Path Takes Diligence, Training

Elizabeth McGowan, Reporter

June 8, 2015

8 Min Read
Keeping Hazardous Materials on Straight and Safe Path Takes Diligence, Training

All hazardous waste and materials are not created—or transported—equally. But in an ideal world, every bit of it would travel safely from Point A to Point B.

And William Stevens, a hazardous materials investigator with the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of Hazardous Materials Safety, gets up in the morning to make sure that happens.

His office is part of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). He works out of Atlanta, as part of the agency’s Southern Region that covers Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee, plus Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

Stevens joined PHMSA in 1997 after a 26-year-career in the Air Force, where he was responsible for fighter aircraft maintenance before becoming a manager in charge of safety, health and waste management. 

He is one of 64 hazardous materials investigators with PHMSA nationwide. After 18 years with the agency, he specializes in regulated medical waste/infectious substances, cylinder re-qualifications, lithium batteries and packaging requirements.

Stevens also does training. That’s why he and his PHMSA colleague, Eileen Edmonson, spoke at Healthcare Waste, a conference co-located with WasteExpo 2015 in Las Vegas. Stevens will cover enforcement and inspection requirements. Edmonson, a transportation regulations specialist based in Washington will talk about what PHMSA’s regulatory updates mean for industry.

Waste360: How far-reaching is the work you do?

William Stevens: We regulate the packaging and transportation of hazardous materials on airplanes, trains and trucks and other vehicles on the roadways. In short, our specialty is packaging containers for compressed gases and oxidizers, as well as anything that’s explosive, radioactive, flammable, corrosive or infectious.

That can include everything from waste paint to the red bags of regulated medical waste from hospitals, clinics and doctors’ offices.

More than 3,000 chemicals are listed in our Code of Federal Regulations (CFR 49). That booklet is about two-and-a-half inches thick, and it’s my working bible. It spells out specifics such as which container can be filled and shipped, what labeling and shipping documents need to be attached, how to figure load limitations and where a container must be stored on a vessel.

Waste360: Investigator is an intriguing title. What are you inspecting?

William Stevens: We are required to spend a minimum of 90 inspection days a year out of the office. Investigators in our Southern Region Office average 100 days or more away from the office.

We investigate and inspect the companies that manufacture the fiberboard and steel drums, boxes, totes and other containers used to ship and haul hazardous waste and materials. That packaging must be certified and meet standards set by the United Nations. The packages have to pass drop tests, stack tests, pressure tests, vibration tests and hydrostatic leak tests.

Some of the other manufacturers we inspect are those producing a range of gas tank cylinders, including the ones that welders use and personal oxygen tanks.

We also make sure companies make it clear what type of hazardous waste is in the package by using the proper package labeling and shipping documents. First responders need to know what they’re being exposed to if there’s an accident or incident on the road. We will go to the scene to investigate those to determine probable cause of the mishap. It might be mishandling, failure of transfer lines, or incorrect connections or closure devices. If a trucker has an accident and his load dumps, we want to know if he failed to hold the curve or if it’s due to failed or leaky packaging.

Waste360: Can't shippers and haulers be trusted to carry hazardous materials from Point A to Point B without federal oversight?

William Stevens: Hazardous materials will get from Point A to Point B only if things are done safely. That’s why we write the regulations we do, so it is done the right way. Our goal is to see to it that any product being transported on a public road is done in the safest way possible. We are here to safeguard the public.

Waste360: What tools do you need to do your job well?

William Stevens: Cameras, meters, gauges and a flashlight are the obvious physical tools. We also need communication devices such as phones, computers and online access because we’re on the road so much.

But the best tool we have is training and experience. We are all well rounded because you have to be able to carry out your investigator functions thoroughly. If you can’t work independently, then you shouldn’t bother to come work here. The job is totally different depending on whether you’re walking through a doorway for a site visit or approaching an incident.

You’ve got to be honest and professional and give everybody their tax dollars’ worth. Our training doesn’t just revolve around the book, CFR 49. It includes people management. Sometimes we meet with a company’s environmental health and safety manager and sometimes we meet with the warehouse manager or the vice president. You have to be prepared.

Waste 360: What is the most difficult part about your job? What about the most rewarding?

William Stevens: We try to eliminate any difficulties by being continuously trained on our subject matter. Our law enforcement training teaches us how to evaluate and defuse potentially threatening situations. We’re alert to our surroundings so we can recognize when danger might be imminent.

A reward for me is when I get a handshake and a thank you after an inspection. I’m not on a time limit so nobody should be afraid to ask me questions. Most folks really want to do it right, they are just ignorant about where to go for correct advice. My job is to enlighten them about the regulations in the manual concerning hazardous materials and provide training so they understand how these requirements make everything safer for everybody.

Waste360: How do new regulations for hazardous materials/waste come down the pike?

William Stevens: Regulatory updates are a constant and are handled by our Standards and Rulemaking Division in Washington, D.C. Usually they are announced in the Federal Register, beginning with a “notice of proposed regulatory change.” They then progress through a process that includes industry input. The final regulatory change includes effective dates of compliance.

Waste360: Are there exceptions to this process when a new wastestream requires quick turnaround?

William Stevens: Yes. With the recent Ebola situation, we worked closely with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other agencies to issue a “special permit” to make sure that a safe method of transportation and handling is incorporated immediately during an emergency. What we stressed was that this was a disease happening now so we needed to get out in front of it and take care of it. This process ensures that Ebola waste is disinfected and wrapped properly by people with special training. Carriers with that permit are authorized to transport the waste to a place where it can be safely destroyed.

Waste360:  What are some of the common violations for companies shipping or transporting hazardous materials?

William Stevens: Violations are written for many different things and in many different situations but I can put them into two distinct categories.

The one that tops the list is improper training or no training at all. When somebody at a company tells me, “That’s the way we were told to do it” or “That’s how it has always been done,” it pretty much guarantees that you’re not in compliance. Part of what I do is to bring them up to date by teaching them how to follow the rules and not rely on something they learned years ago.

The other category is communications, which covers using the correct labeling and shipping documents. They are very detailed because each classification requires a different label. For instance, if you’re transporting a flammable liquid such as oil-based paint you’ve got the potential of hazardous fumes. The truck driver has to know what he’s handling and that information has to be posted in a certain part of the cab.

Waste360: What kind of action can you take against companies or haulers that aren’t in compliance?

William Stevens: During inspections, we can write up violations that might evolve into fines or penalties for the shipper and transporter. Fines range from $495 to $75,000. Congress has outlined penalty guidelines that PHMSA must follow. Those fines and penalties are civil cases. In a criminal case, where somebody might be killed or injured, PHMSA works with the U.S. Department of Justice.

A penalty is not my ultimate goal. I also can issue a warning letter and put a company on notice. An inspection can take two hours or all day. I’m not there to stay until I find something wrong. I want the company to get in compliance.

In our normal, daily routine we do not pull over trucks but we are authorized to stop imminent dangerous shipping/transporting on the spot, so we are authorized to stop a package. We can’t stop a transporter from operating, but if the violations are serious enough, that can be done by an agency that deals with that mode of transportation, such as the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

Waste360: What are some of your more memorable cases?

William Stevens: Well, I was involved in an FBI case that centered on the illegal sale of human body parts that hadn’t been declared as either hazardous or infectious materials.

And one of my best was working with the CDC after a California lab shipped anthrax samples to an East Coast lab. The vials weren’t packaged correctly, they were thrown in there like pixie sticks. And, the caps had come off, so when it was opened workers had a live agent on their hands.

My expertise in the packaging and transporting of infectious materials has allowed me to travel all over the country. Those are experiences I’ll never forget.

About the Author(s)

Elizabeth McGowan

Reporter, Waste360

Elizabeth H. McGowan, an award-winning energy and environment reporter based in Washington, D.C., writes a weekly Industry Buzz article for Waste360. She was the D.C. correspondent for Crain Communications' Waste & Recycling News, and has written for numerous other publications since beginning her career at daily newspapers in Wisconsin. In 2013, she won the Pulitzer Prize in the national reporting category for an investigative series published in InsideClimate News that revealed how the nation’s oil pipeline infrastructure isn’t measuring up to federal safety standards.

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