Congress is cracking down on the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, following a report by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee that found the agency was granting special permits without reviewing applicants' safety histories
and without coordinating with partner safety agencies. As a result, Congress is asking PHMSA to make improvements to its approval process of special permits for transporting hazardous materials.

According to Calvin Scovel, inspector general for the U.S. Department of Transportation, special permits and approvals exempt applicants from certain regulations on the transport of hazardous materials. Currently, there are about 5,500 special permit holders and 118,000 approvals.

According to Scovel, PHMSA does not consider or look at applicants' incident and enforcement histories when granting exemptions. While the agency does evaluate the safety of the action, process or package that the applicant is requesting, it does not look at the company's prior incidents. For example, the agency granted a special permit to one company that had 53 incidents in the last 10 years, 12 of which were serious and 9 of which involved vehicle rollovers.

In addition, before granting exemptions, the agency does not coordinate with other agencies that are involved in overseeing the transport of hazardous materials.

"In short, our work shows that immediate attention is needed to prevent unsafe packaging and transport of explosives and explosive components traveling under Department of Transportation Special Permit Numbers 8554, 11579, and 12677," Scovel said in his testimony. "Regulating and monitoring the movement of hazardous materials is a critical part of ensuring the safety of the nation's transportation system, and it is PHMSA's role to properly assess all risks before allowing applicants to participate in commerce under special permits and approvals."

On July 28, Scovel's office sent a management advisory to PHMSA highlighting these concerns. In August, PHMSA came up with several ways to address the problems, including revising policy and procedures for safety documentation evaluations and developing standard operating policies and procedures for the special permits program, among others.