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Impending tanker retrofit rule slippery when wet

28 March 2011

The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration will extend the comment period of the wetlines rule for 30 days, until April 27, 2011. Despite the overwhelming cost to the trucking industry and the arguable lack of evidence that tanker fuel lines are a safety hazard, PHMSA decided to go ahead with its proposal to ban wetlines on tank trailers.

The rule would require flammable liquid haulers to either install a system that purges all but one liter of product from the wetlines on the underside of a tanker or outfit some sort of metal cage or bumper system around the piping. And 12 years after the rule takes effect (assumingly for 2012) wetlines won't be permitted on trailers at all, so tankers built before then will either have to be retrofitted or put out of commission. The agency, which argues that the external piping (and thereby, flammable liquid) on the underside of cargo tanks is exposed to a collision, says that about 27,000 cargo tanks would be affected by the new rule. PHMSA has twice before introduced a proposed wetlines rule but withdrew it after a cost-benefit analysis concluded it could not be justified because of the expenses involved and that wetlines accidents are so rare.
US regulators seem poised to forge ahead with a wetlines ban, regardless of the costs
But under pressure last year by a Democratic Congress, the agency tried again, acting over the vocal protests of the trucking industry, namely John Conley, president of National Tank Truck Carriers. Reiterating statements he made to Today's Trucking last summer when the idea was being floated, Conley says that the proposal has little to do with safety - in fact, it puts shop technicians in danger because during retrofit welding there's a risk of coming into contact with trapped gas vapors. (There are 14 documented fatalities or severe injuries due to this). While he doesn't deny that wetline ruptures do happen, Conley insists that the government is overstating the risks. In fact, the "poster event" legislators leaned on to justify the rule - a fatality involving a car-tanker crash in Yonkers, N.Y. in 1997 - has since been proven by subsequent investigations to be a result of the tank shell ripping, not solely the wetline, and therefore virtually unavoidable at the speed the car was traveling. Conley asked the National Transportation Safety Board to reopen the investigation, but to no avail. Conley says installing guards around wetlines or on-board purging systems is going to be costly for tank fleets. Plus, the extra weight will cut into payload, critical to liquid bulk haulers. He even suggested the idea of installing purging systems (of which, there's only one known manufacturer right now) at fuel loading racks rather than on trucks. "Of course, they said they couldn't do that," he told Today's Trucking in a follow-up chat. It's likely, then, that relatively young trailers bought between now and 2014 might be rendered inoperable unless they're retrofitted and redesigned without wetlines. "Thousands of gasoline trailers will need to be worked on," he says. "There's a fundamental lack of understanding of the mechanics involved." And can you just imagine the tanker prebuy?

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