Stateline Story

Hazmat Incidents Show Downward Trend

  • August 25, 2003
  • By Kathleen Murphy

Illinois led all states last year in the number of spills involving chemicals, petroleum, medical waste or other hazardous materials, known as "hazmat," according to U.S. Transportation Department data.

The Prairie State had 1,324 incidents last year, nearly nine percent of the national total, federal data showed. Package carriers such as FedEX and UPS accounted for 730 of the Illinois incidents, Terry Moore, hazmat compliance unit manager for the Illinois Department of Transportation, told Stateline.org.

"Illinois is the crossroads of the United States. We have major FedEx facilities. Obviously you have O'Hare airport, which is a large hub for air freight. FedEx is a high-volume transporter in ground and in air, but most everything has to go by ground before it gets to another mode of transportation ... Obviously they're going to have some incidents somewhere along the line," Moore said.

FedEx spokeswoman Sally Davenport said the company reports even minor incidents where materials leak inside the box. Most FedEx shipments are less than 70 pounds and under four liters, and shipments of ordinary items like paint or dry ice trigger federal reporting requirements for hazmat incidents if they spill, Davenport said.

UPS spokesman Dan McMackin said, "Illinois happens to have our largest packaging facility in its boundaries. It's the largest package handling facility in the world. We report every single incident regardless of how small it is. We're absolutely fanatical about reporting. We don't handle radioactive materials. What we're talking about is fingernail polish remover and toilet bowl cleaner."

More potent chemical spills could injure or kill people, shut down roadways and cause lasting environmental damage. The advent of bio-terrorism has brought hazmat security to the forefront, and government is responsible for assuring safe, reliable and secure movements of hazardous materials.

In Illinois as well as other states, the number of incidents involving potentially harmful materials was down last year. Hazmat incidents were at their lowest level since 1997, and the number of related fatalities was lowest since 1995.

Nationwide, 15,346 hazmat incidents resulted in seven deaths and about $50 million in damages last year, a federal hazmat report issued July 29 said. There were 2,523 fewer U.S. incidents in 2002 than the previous year.

Alan Borner, president of the Environmental Hazards Management Institute, a non-profit, non-partisan environmental organization, attributed the declining number of spills to expensive legal sanctions against transportation companies.

"The liability has caught up. They've been sued enough. They've been fined enough. So there's finally a slight reduction-- and maybe even more than slight-- as a result of people taking these things seriously," Borner said.

Texas and California each also had about 1,000 hazmat spills last year. So did Ohio, where Interstate 70 is a major freight thoroughfare. New Hampshire, Vermont, South Dakota, Alaska and Hawaii each had fewer than 15 hazmat incidents in 2002.

About 800,000 hazmat shipments move across the country daily, according to the U.S. Transportation Department. About 3 billion tons of hazardous materials are transported annually, federal data shows.

Some states are prone to more spills because of larger amounts of hazmat traffic, said Carmen Daecher, president of Daecher Consulting Group, a Pennsylvania firm that investigates hazmat incidents and performs accident reconstruction services.

"A lot of these are not multiple vehicle accidents. Many of these occur because of overturn situations with trucks, or where highways and ramps are too short or turn too quickly," Daecher said.

The greatest amount of hazardous tonnage moves through Illinois, Texas, California, Louisiana and Florida, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's most recent data.

Most hazardous materials are transported on highways using trucks, and the trucking industry's safety record has been improving. Highway safety statistics have shown a two-decade drop in the nation's large truck fatal crash rate, according to the American Trucking Associations.

Increased efforts to safeguard the U.S. transportation system from terrorism after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has led to new hazmat restrictions. The USA Patriot Act of 2001 prohibits states from issuing a commercial driver's license with a hazmat endorsement to any person unless the federal government determines he or she poses no security risk.

Illinois scrutinized state licensing of truckers and ordered more than 1,000 truckers to retake their licensing tests after a scandal erupted in 2000. Federal authorities alleged that Illinois officials issued truck driver's licenses to people without making them properly complete written tests and allowed them to cheat during the tests.

Then-Gov. George Ryan denied knowing about state employees granting commercial licenses in exchange for bribes, a practice the federal investigators said began during Ryan's tenure as secretary of state.