Undeclared Hazardous Materials:

New DOT Efforts May Provide Additional Information on Undeclared Shipments

GAO-06-471: Published: Mar 29, 2006. Publicly Released: Mar 29, 2006.

Additional Materials:


Jayetta Z. Hecker


Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800

More than 3 billion tons of regulated hazardous materials (hazmat)--including explosive, poisonous, corrosive, flammable, and radioactive materials--are transported in the United States each year. When these materials are properly packaged, labeled, and stowed, they can be transported safely, but when they are not, they can pose significant threats to transportation workers, emergency responders, and the general public because of the potential for accidents and incidents. Moreover, since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the security of such shipments, especially those that can be used as weapons of mass destruction, has attracted the attention of the transportation community, government officials, and emergency responders. In the wrong hands, hazardous materials could pose a significant security threat, and it is likely that terrorists who seek to use hazardous materials to harm Americans would move those materials as undeclared shipments. Federal officials are aware that undeclared shipments of hazmat occur and can have serious consequences. Federal hazmat experts believe that the most frequent explanations for undeclared shipments are (1) shipper's lack of knowledge--an unawareness or misunderstanding of the requirements for properly declaring and transporting hazmat--and (2) economic--an attempt to avoid additional costs that may be associated with shipping regulated hazmat, including special placarding, packaging, additional training, and insurance. To the extent that such undeclared shipments are discovered, the discovery typically occurs in one of the following ways: as a result of an accident or incident, during a routine cargo inspection, or when a tip is provided to officials. Two federal departments are involved in discovering undeclared hazmat entering the United States--Homeland Security (DHS) and Transportation (DOT). DHS--primarily through the Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection--seeks to ensure the security of hazmat by reducing threats to transportation infrastructure and operations. DOT's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has the primary responsibility for regulating the safe and secure transportation of hazmat, and other modal administrations--most notably the Federal Railroad Administration, Federal Aviation Administration, and Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration--are responsible for enforcing compliance with regulations once hazmat has entered the U.S. transportation system. A good understanding of the frequency and impact of undeclared hazmat shipments is essential to identifying the extent of the problem and developing regulations and programs to mitigate the risk involved. The Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) requires that we review existing options and determine additional options for discovering the amount of undeclared shipments of hazardous materials entering the United States. To respond to this mandate, this report (1) describes the current federal approach for discovering the amount of undeclared hazmat entering the United States, (2) identifies efforts under way to enhance the existing approach, and (3) determines whether any additional options could be employed.

The federal government has no specific program aimed at discovering the amount of undeclared hazmat entering the United States; undeclared hazmat is discovered mainly through inspection and regulatory efforts directed primarily at imported cargo. The two main departments involved in these efforts--DHS and DOT--play complementary roles. DHS finds undeclared hazmat through various programs and technologies for screening cargo entering the United States. DOT, on the other hand, finds undeclared hazmat while enforcing compliance with hazmat regulations--through inspections and penalties--for shipments that are in the nation's transportation system. DOT officials inspect hazmat cargo to ensure proper paperwork, marking, labeling, and packaging; provide technical assistance intended to enhance the security of hazmat carriers; and issue security planning and training requirements for hazmat employees. Under this approach, however, information about the amount of undeclared hazmat entering the United States is limited. Neither DHS nor DOT could provide data about the amount of undeclared hazmat entering or discovered entering the country, even though their subordinate agencies maintain inspection databases. DOT has two new efforts under way that officials expect will enhance the current approach for discovering undeclared hazmat entering the United States: Under SAFETEA-LU, DOT received enhanced authority to discover hidden shipments of hazmat. DOT expects to complete the rule-making process for implementing this expanded authority in late 2006, but the effective date is uncertain. The new authority allows DOT inspectors to open and inspect cargo when they have "an objectively reasonable and articulable belief that the package may contain a hazardous material." Previously, they could not generally open and inspect packages without a warrant or the shipper's consent. In an attempt to quantify undeclared hazmat incidents and discoveries, DOT now requires individuals who discover undeclared hazmat in transportation to self-report the discovery. To implement this requirement, which began on January 1, 2005, DOT revised its hazardous materials incident reporting form (Form 5800.1). Data collected through this form can help in defining the extent of the problem and in developing programs to mitigate the risk of undeclared hazmat. Approximately 1,000 undeclared hazmat incidents were reported in 2005, with 70 of those involving undeclared shipments entering the United States. Although additional options exist for discovering undeclared hazmat entering the United States, each additional option, such as increasing the scope and frequency of inspections, poses costs that would need to be evaluated within the context of (1) the likely benefits of the additional efforts and (2) the comparative risks posed by undeclared hazmat relative to other types of threats. At this time, however, data for evaluating additional options and costs is limited. There may be ways to utilize the inspection data currently collected by DOT's modal administrations and DHS agencies to provide additional information about the amount of undeclared hazmat entering the United States. However, according to DOT and DHS officials, the inspection data currently collected and reported is not designed to identify discoveries of undeclared hazmat. For example, data recorded by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration includes such violations as "no placards/markings when required" or "no shipping papers"; while these may indicate the presence of undeclared hazmat, there is no violation category or data collected specific to discoveries of undeclared hazmat. Finally, DOT has recently revised its data collection tool and received new inspection authority, and more time is needed to observe and evaluate the impacts of these efforts on discovering the amount of undeclared hazmat entering the United States before pursing additional options.

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