Since September 11, changes in the way we handle security at airports have been paralleled by closer scrutiny of the trucking industry. Included in the recently-passed Anti-Terrorism Act are more extensive background checks for truck drivers licensed to carry hazardous materials. Department of Transportation officials say they can't be implemented right away. In the meantime, state agencies are doing what they can to crack down on hazmat shipments. But trucking industry spokesmen and the truckers themselves say licensing is just one of many security concerns. 90.3 WCPN's Karen Schaefer reports.
Karen Schaefer- On September 20, federal agents arrested a Detroit truck driver suspected of having terrorist links. The man held a commercial drivers license - or CDL - with a hazardous materials endorsement. That allowed him to haul explosives, poisonous chemicals, and other potential weapons of mass destruction. Since then the FBI has detained at least a score of other suspected terrorists with hazmat credentials. That was enough to convince Congress that security in the nation's trucking industry needed an overhaul.
There are literally thousands of toxic chemicals listed as hazardous materials. But it doesn't take a degree in chemistry to get a hazmat endorsement. Doug Ott directs the hazmat training program at Cleveland State University, which provides initial training and annual updates for most of Ohio's fire and police units. He says anyone can register for the class. And if they pass the test, they're licensed hazmat operators.
Doug Ott- They've got their different criteria, they've got their CDL license to procure. They'll maybe work as an independent, maybe work for a major trucking company. But it's not restricted to a small portion of the United States. Anybody who wants that job can apply.
KS- There's no training required to obtain a commercial drivers license. Scott Loftis is editor of the Trucker, a national newspaper for 18-wheelers. In October, he wrote a column expressing his concern about the ease with which truckers can be licensed and endorsed to haul hazardous materials.
Scott Loftis- It really concerns me that, in a lot of cases, people have obtained CDL's that haven't had the training to pass the course or have had some sort of bad intention once they got the CDL.
KS- In late October, Congress responded with anti-terrorist legislation that requires a 10-year employment history and background checks for new or renewing hazmat drivers. But the new requirements do not apply to the 43,000 drivers who already have certification. And the Department of Transportation's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration can't implement the new background checks until the DOT has created new regulations, a process that could take months. A department spokesperson - who declined to go on record - says in the meantime, it's business as usual.
But officials are trying to close security loopholes within the trucking industry. Shana Gerber is with the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, which oversees the state's 5,000 registered hazmat drivers. She says the federal government has been working with her agency to pay on-site visits to 500 of Ohio's 3,000 trucking companies and other firms that handle hazardous materials.
Shana Gerber- Our specialists have been out asking the motor carriers to essentially examine personnel security in reviewing drivers' files. Also, asking the companies to review the security of their on-site storage of hazardous material, as well as security measures that are being taken during the transportation of those materials.
KS- Ohio State Troopers have also increased their vehicle inspections. Lieutenant Gary Lewis says he has 120 officers trained to check for proper licensing and labeling of trucks carrying everything from diesel fuel and gasoline to highly toxic chlorine gas.
Gary Lewis- Number one, the scales are now going to open 24 hours a day. The second is, we are not only using stationary facilities such as the scales, but we are also checking at random.
KS- But truckers themselves say hazmat licensing isn't the only security issue in the trucking industry. Todd Spencer is executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association. He says vehicle security at most distribution centers is lax, even at military installations where truckers must sometimes wait for hours before delivering a load. And he says there's no way to check the contents of all container shipments coming into the nation's ports from overseas.
Todd Spencer- The challenging part of that is, just the sheer volume of containers that comes in. I mean, at most you can only spot check, so you simply rely on the papers that follow the container.
KS- Government and trucking industry officials say they're pleased so far with the level of cooperation in closing security gaps. But both regulators and truckers point out that anyone can steal an 18-wheeler and drive it into a bridge or building. That's why some trucking insiders believe the best way to improve carrier security is to upgrade training and increase drivers' salaries. In Cleveland, Karen Schaefer, 90.3 WCPN News.