Railroad Safety:

DOT Should Better Manage Its Hazardous Materials Inspection Program

RCED-90-43: Published: Nov 17, 1989. Publicly Released: Nov 22, 1989.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO evaluated the: (1) effectiveness of the Federal Railroad Administration's (FRA) hazardous materials inspection program; and (2) extent to which the Department of Transportation's (DOT) Research and Special Programs Administration (RSPA) improved its Hazardous Materials Information System (HMIS) and established a program to register hazardous materials shippers.

GAO found that: (1) FRA inspectors' hazardous materials enforcement manual included outdated and contradictory inspection goals and guidance, did not describe ways for inspectors to identify and target high-risk shippers, and did not clearly delineate when inspectors should cite shippers and railroads for noncompliance or inspectors' authority to issue violations at shippers' facilities; (2) FRA did not use information available from its sources or HMIS to target inspection resources at high-risk shippers and railroad facilities; (3) FRA inspectors generally focused on inspecting individual cars carrying hazardous materials, rather than reviewing the adequacy of shippers' or railroads' safety procedures; (4) FRA lacked adequate staffing to accomplish its objective of ensuring that shippers and railroads complied with RSPA regulations; (5) FRA cited budget restrictions as the primary reason for not actively seeking to fill six position vacancies or adding more positions; (6) FRA has not sought statutory authority to certify state inspectors to participate in its hazardous materials inspection program, although some states have adopted federal standards and shown an interest in assisting FRA; (7) HMIS did not include data about 23 of 96 railroad hazardous materials releases GAO reviewed; and (8) RSPA did not require shippers to submit reports of hazardous materials releases, require post-investigation report updates, share accident and enforcement data with other agencies, or require major hazardous materials shippers to register.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator, RSPA, to improve the completeness of the hazardous materials incident reporting system by requiring reporters of hazardous materials incidents to submit revised incident reports if significant changes occur in previously submitted reports.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: RSPA extended its reporting deadline from 15 days to 30 days and believes this increase made a significant difference in the accuracy of reports. However, this action was discussed in the report, but GAO concluded that RSPA could do more. RSPA plans no further action.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator, RSPA, to improve the completeness of the hazardous materials incident reporting system by establishing a procedure to routinely compare HMIS data with similar data in other systems, such as FRA data on railroad accidents involving hazardous materials releases. This would: (1) improve the accuracy and completeness of HMIS data; and (2) identify nonreporters. Where nonreporters are identified, appropriate enforcement action should be taken.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: RSPA stated that it now routinely compares hazardous material reports with information received from the National Response Center, quarterly reports from FRA, and annual computer tapes from the Federal Highway Administration on truck accidents. This action was discussed in the report, but GAO concluded that RSPA could do more. RSPA plans no further action.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator, RSPA, to improve the completeness of the hazardous materials incident reporting system by requiring that hazardous materials incident reports be submitted by all firms, such as shippers, involved with any aspect of transportation as defined in the Hazardous Materials Transportation Act.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: RSPA disagreed with this recommendation stating that loading and unloading by the shipper is not within RSPA reporting jurisdiction, unless a carrier reports a spill. GAO has taken the position that loading and unloading at shipper facilities are covered by RSPA regulations and within RSPA jurisdiction.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator, FRA, to perform a comprehensive survey of states with railroad inspection programs to determine the degree of interest in allowing state inspectors to perform hazardous materials inspections. If so indicated by the results, DOT should request legislative changes that would authorize state participation in the federal hazardous materials inspection program.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Hazardous Materials Transportation Uniform Safety Act of 1990, P.L. 101-615, November 16, 1990, authorized states to enforce FRA hazardous material inspections. FRA is currently developing regulations to implement this legal authority.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator, FRA, to initiate a study of the staffing needs for realistic program implementation, considering the changes in objectives and procedures developed as a result of the recommendations in this report.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FRA is modifying the staffing model to better project needs and allocate resources, utilizing data from the regional inspection and quality improvement programs. Although FRA has not studied hazardous materials inspection needs specifically, the model will take into account the risks associated with hazardous materials inspection sites.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator, FRA, to establish a new inspection approach that: (1) includes identifying high-risk shippers and railroads, and targets them for inspection; and (2) emphasizes concentrating on reviewing safety procedures and secondarily inspecting tank cars.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The FRA Quality Improvement Program and the revised Hazardous Materials Enforcement Manual implement the recommendation for a new inspection approach.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator, FRA, to update the enforcement manual to: (1) provide consistent guidance, including agencywide goals and objectives; and (2) clarify inspectors' authority to write violations at shipper facilities before rail cars are transferred to railroads for transportation.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FRA issued a revised Hazardous Materials Enforcement Manual in January 1991 incorporating the recommendations on agencywide goals and objectives and clarified inspector authority.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator, RSPA, to follow through on a 1980 GAO recommendation to establish a mandatory registration program for hazardous materials shippers.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On November 16, 1990, the President signed the Hazardous Materials Transportation Uniform Safety Act that included a requirement for shippers to register with RSPA.

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