Hazmat: Progress at a glacial pace

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has just published another amendment picking up the international rules. Do we expect this "harmonization" process to be finished at some point?

Not soon, and probably not ever. The UN Committee of Experts on the Transport of Dangerous Goods meets in December of even-numbered years and decides on changes to the UN Model Regulations. A lot of fine-tuning changes were adopted in the last meeting, as well as new provisions to accommodate emerging technologies such as methanol fuel cell cartridges in consumer electronics like laptops and cell phones.

Although the express goal of all national participants in the UN process is to achieve global harmonization, managers of certain modal, national and regional codes are reluctant to give up their own unique regulatory provisions in the name of uniformity.

For example, the international multimodal shipment of small packages containing dangerous goods continues to be a problem because of the lack of uniformity in provisions for limited quantities, consumer commodities and so-called "excepted quantities" (very small unit sizes of regulated materials in very good packaging). To a large extent, impediments to the flow of these materials across borders and modal changes are the result of code-writers only thinking about their operations and not about the people who have to use their codes.

In each biennial period, however, it seems the changes become less dramatic, and the U.S. and other regulatory bodies are drawing closer to the UN Model Regulations. In the recent DOT publication in Docket No. HM-215G, it was helpful to read that the people at DOT "are not striving to make the [hazardous materials regulations] identical to the international regulations but rather striving to remove or avoid potential barriers to international transportation." The goal, therefore, is greater efficiency and compatibility,-rather than verbatim uniformity.

The UN Committee decides matters that have been discussed for the past two years, and then sets the work program for the next two. Items to be addressed in 2005-2006 are:

  1. transportation of gases (particularly with respect to cylinders),
  2. testing for explosives classification,
  3. harmonizing lists of regulated materials with emphasis on aquatic pollutants,
  4. capability of packaging to perform in the real world as well as in a lab,
  5. harmonizing limited quantities,
  6. better integration of the radioactive materials regulatory program,
  7. improved hazard communication,
  8. establishment of core principles to guide future regulators, and
  9. a range of specific proposals that necessarily will be brought to the UN for discussion.

The UN-based regulatory system makes sense, but many in industry are frustrated by the pace. For example, any new idea raised at the UN meeting in July 2005, even if it's not controversial, will not enter the UN Model Regulations until December 2006, and will not appear in IMO (International Maritime Organization)and ICAO (International Civil Aviation-Organization) publications until their 2009 editions. DOT and other nations will endeavor to come into consistency with IMO and ICAO.

A target of all regulators should be adoption of fewer editorial changes, the development of an internationally consistent series of interpretations, and an accelerated mechanism for moving from an initial idea to on-the-street implementation. Until then, however, it behooves each company involved with hazardous materials distribution and transportation to look far enough into the future, and to plan on a timely basis for appropriate implementation of new ideas.

Correction: In my last column , I noted erroneously that liquids with a flash point above 23°C are not regulated in air transportation. The correct temperature is 60.5°C. My apologies for any inconvenience this error may have caused.

Lawrence Bierlein is a partner with McCarthy, Sweeney & Harkaway, P.C. in Washington, D.C. His practice is devoted to issues involving transportation of hazardous materials. He can be reached at 202.775.5560, [email protected].

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