Did you know you could write to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) and request guidance on a specific question you have about the regulations? Did you know PHMSA has a toll-free “hazmat helpline” that you can call during business hours and talk to a representative about hazmat transport questions you have, for free? Well, you can and now PHMSA wants to make the processes more efficient.
PHMSA’s website states that its mission is to protect people and the environment by advancing the safe transportation of energy and other hazardous materials that are essential to our daily lives. To do this, the agency establishes national policy, sets and enforces standards, educates, and conducts research to prevent incidents. We also prepare the public and first responders to reduce consequences if an incident does occur.
PHMSA accomplishes its mission in several ways. They write and maintain the Hazardous Materials Regulations (HMR) in 49 CFR Parts 100 – 185. The regulations lay out the requirements that shippers, operators, and their employees must follow to safely transport hazardous materials by all modes. To facilitate the safety mission, PHMSA also accepts written requests for clarification of the regulations and publishes Letters of Interpretation (LOI) in response to those requests. Finally, PHMSA operates the Hazardous Materials Information Center where the public can call and get answers to specific questions about hazmat regulations.
What is a Letter of Interpretation?
Letters of Interpretation (LOI) are written requests by stakeholders to PHMSA for answers about specific scenarios and how to apply the HMR. PHMSA provides a written response and publishes that response on its website.
The letters do not add requirements that are not already in the regulations. LOI can be used by anyone, not just the requestor of the interpretation.
Why FAQs for Hazmat Regulations?
On March 22, PHMSA published a request for comment about an initiative to convert older LOI into a repository of frequently asked questions (FAQ). The goal is to reduce the number of recurring requests for LOI and further PHMSA’s mission to facilitate a better understanding and awareness of the hazardous materials regulations. PHMSA also believes this will allow more time for staff to address more complicated LOI requests.
PHMSA receives about 250 requests for LOI annually. While the exact situations may differ, some of the requests present similar situations from earlier LOI. The intention of creating FAQs is “optimize the effectiveness, reach, and impact” of the LOI program.
As part of the request for comments, PHMSA included 12 example questions and answers for the FAQ. They include:
- Is a Federal, state, or local government agency subject to the HMR?
- Is a hazardous material transported on private roads subject to the HMR?
- Are hazardous materials installed or used in or on a motor vehicle (e.g., gasoline in the motor vehicle’s fuel tank) subject to the HMR?
- Is the filling of a package with a hazardous material subject to the HMR if it is not being offered for transportation in commerce? For example, pouring a flammable liquid into bottles that may be transported eventually.
PHMSA has requested comments on the FAQ initiative be submitted by May 23, 2022.
What Would Count as an FAQ for Hazardous Materials Regulations?
PHMSA has provided guidance on what would make a good candidate for an FAQ. The agency is looking for hazmat questions that:
- Are commonly asked and relevant to a large number of hazmat stakeholders
- Have a clear answer that can be supported by the Hazardous Materials Regulations
- The answer should not require further interpretation
- The answer should not be obvious
- The answer is not time-sensitive
Creating an FAQ would not be the first time PHMSA has moved to provide more information in an easily accessible format. In 2020, the agency launched hazmat.gov as “a one-stop-shop” for hazmat information. The website includes resources like training, publications, and compliance assistance.
Who Exactly is PHMSA?
PHMSA is part of the Department of Transportation, an official government organization, and is charged with improving pipeline and hazmat safety. This includes developing and enforcing hazmat regulations, conducting inspections and investigations, and providing training and assistance. PHMSA also provides hazmat-related grants and financial assistance.
Who Would Benefit From This FAQ Initiative?
Whether you are a professional who transports hazardous materials, or someone who uses products that contain hazmat in their daily life, understanding the regulations is important. A clear understanding of hazmat regulations is a matter of public safety, and a disregard for these regulations can lead to catastrophic accidents.
The FAQs would provide clear and concise answers to commonly asked questions about hazmat regulations. This would free up PHMSA’s time to focus on more complicated issues and requests, and centralize the many questions that laypeople and industry professionals alike have asked over the years.
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