A firefighter with the Horseheads Village Fire Department spreads absorbent material near a fuel spill following the collision of two trucks at the intersection of Route 17 and Grand Central Avenue in Horseheads that ruptured one of the tanks during a 2007 accident.
Unnoticed until something goes wrong, dangerous chemicals course steadily through the state’s highways and down its secondary roads.
Shipments of ammonia, sodium hydroxide and gasoline pass through neighborhoods, around lakes and across streams and rivers.
In 34 states, there are comprehensive rules that tell haulers where those chemicals can and cannot travel.
But in the 57 counties outside of New York City, no rules are in place to guard the state’s population centers and waterways from hazardous materials carried on the roads. State lawmakers have foughtto fix the regulatory blind spot for years, but to no avail.
While the nation’s attention has turned to rail shipments of crude oil and other chemicals, a review of data for this report shows a higher probability of danger on the roads rather than the rails.
Our analysis of federal hazardous materials data shows that highway transportation has posed a far greater threat to lives and the environment, both nationally and in New York, dating back to the 1970s.
The nation was awakened to the dangers of hazardous material transportation by the June 2013 derailment of a 74-car freight train carrying crude oil in Quebec, Canada, which killed 47 people. That was followed in recent months by derailments in North Dakota, Alabama and, on Wednesday, a derailment and explosion in Lynchburg, Va.
“This is the latest in a series of accidents involving trains transporting crude oil, a startling pattern that underscores the need for action,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a statement after the most recent incident.
Yet federal data show that railway hazardous materials incidents have resulted in 66 fatalities from 1971 to 2013 compared to 589 highway hazmat deaths in the same period.
In New York, all 24 hazardous materials incident fatalities since 1971 have occurred on highways. They include deadly incidents in Steuben, Broome and Delaware counties. All but one — a 1973 crash that released sodium hydroxide solution in Lewis County — involved gasoline or other flammable liquids.
Despite repeated warnings — and new federal laws — New York State has not designated or restricted any of its roadways for the transportation of hazardous materials in areas outside New York City. While states are supposed to put one of their agencies in charge of designating and restricting routes for highway shipment, New York has yet to do so.
Haulers say the federal and state governments should pay more urgent attention to the issue.
Boyd Stephenson, Director of Hazardous Materials Policy for the American Trucking Associations, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group, said it’s important for drivers to know where they can and can’t take the material.
“There are really good ways to balance the necessities of interstate commerce that binds our country together with a very real concern — that’s a good concern — for safety of our population from hazmat,” he said in an interview.
About 800,000 shipments of hazardous materials move each day in the United States.
“In terms of product value, tonnage and number of shipments, trucks move more hazmat than other transportation modes combined,” William F. Downey, executive vice president of Ohio-based Kenan Advantage Group Inc., told a House subcommittee last month.
Hazardous materials transportation in the United States is regulated by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
Under the federal regulations, it is up to the discretion of each state to assess and designate routes for the transportation of hazmat on highways.
Those routes are recorded in the Hazardous Materials Route Registry, a 66-page document outlining the nation’s prescribed, restricted and designated routes for shipping hazmat — a broadly-defined class of materials spanning from nail polish to radioactive waste.
Some states have extensive entries: California, for example, has 277 listings of restricted and designated routes, and Texas has 272. The lists span all parts of the two states, which are closest to New York in size.
In New York, however, the registry has 47 entries. All are in New York City.
“We don’t restrict hazardous materials shipments on any state routes,” said New York State Department of Transportation spokesman Beau Duffy.
In some cases, shipment of hazmat through populated areas has proven deadly.
A tractor trailer hauling 12,000 gallons of gasoline through a populated area of the City of Rochester rolled over while rounding a tight curve in April 2003.
The burning gasoline arced into the upper windows of the homes and ignited them, according to news reports at the time. One woman was killed, and nine others were injured.
In 1991, shortly before New York City adopted its routing restrictions and designations, a tanker truck and a car collided in a busy intersection in the Throgs Neck neighborhood of the Bronx. The fire killed both drivers and three people in the car, and destroyed a row of five businesses.
Not everyone thinks more regulation is the answer.
Kendra Hems, president of New York State Motor Truck Association, noted that there are stringent federal regulations regarding labeling of shipments, driver training and certification, and packaging of materials.
In almost all cases, she said, haulers stay on a main highway or interstate for as much of the trip as possible because it is the shortest and most fuel-efficient route.
“The idea of putting a specific route in place for hazardous material haulers to use, it’s not as simple as the state coming in and saying ‘Well we want them to use these roads,’” Hems said. “There has to be a documented reason.”
For nearly a decade, state and federal lawmakers have advocated for rules governing hazmat shipments outside New York City.
In 2006, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer proposed making Interstate 81 and the New York State Thruway designated hazmat routes to keep haulers off smaller roads.
Soon afterward, a contingent of state lawmakers proposed a bill that would require the state Department of Transportation to research and develop routes for hazmat.
In 2012, Congress approved a transportation bill that included reforms to the routing system, requiring states to designate a “routing agency” charged with reporting a list of allowed and prohibited hazmat shipping routes to the federal transportation department.
The new law also requires the transportation department to update the Hazardous Materials Route Registry annually. The latest official version of the Hazardous Materials Route Registry was published in December 2000, and an unofficial update from 2008 is posted on the department’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s website.
But despite the new law, there is uncertainty about where the responsibility lies.
“It is up to the discretion of each state to assess and designate Hazardous Materials routes,” said Marissa Padilla, a safety administration spokeswoman.
“The state has to comply with federal regulations in routing hazardous material,” said Duffy, the New York State DOT spokesman. “So essentially it’s federally regulated.”
Paul Bomgardner, chief of the federal safety administration’s Hazardous Materials Division, acknowledged confusion over the system in an interview with a trade magazine published in 2013.
“My biggest challenge with routing is trying to find routing agencies within each state,” he told Bulk Transporter. “You call up these states and they go, ‘What? What are you talking about?’ It’s amazing.”
Bomgardner was not available for an interview for this report.
Assemblyman William Barclay, R-Fulton, was the Assembly sponsor of the bill that would have assigned the state Department of Transportation as the official routing agency for the New York and required it to supervise the designation of routes for hazmat transportation.
The proposal was brought about by the proliferation of trash trucks from New York City driving around the area of Skaneateles Lake, in Onondaga County.
“We were concerned about any hazardous waste getting in the lake, since it does supply the water supply for Syracuse and surrounding areas, so there was a safety issue,” he said.
Residents also weren’t fond of the tractor trailers hauling trash up and down their rural roads. But facing opposition from the hauling industry, the bill failed to move out of committee.
“I think it just petered out,” he said.
- Despite the recent publicity, hazardous materials transport on roadways has a more deadly record than rail transport. In the last 40 years, nine times as many hazmat-related deaths have occurred on the road, compared to rail.
- Routing of hazmat shipments on New York’s roadways is largely unregulated. Only New York City has rules.
- •New York state has been slow to designate restricted routes. The state has 47 hazmat listings (all in New York City), compared with 277 in California and 272 in Texas.
- Attempts to regulate hazmat shipping routes in New York have gotten nowhere. States are supposed to designate an agency to oversee roadway regulation, but New York has yet to do so.
INTERACTIVE MAP: Serious hazmat shipping incidents in N.Y.
Written by / Steve Reilly@PSBStephen