Tanks For Nothing: ‘Wetlines’ rule could be costly and dangerous

TORONTO — It ain’t easy getting tanked south of the border.

Not only is U.S. Customs requiring that all truckers report the exact amount of chemical or fuel residue in a tanker container when crossing into the U.S.; but it seems that Congress is hell-bent on making life even more complicated (and expensive) for tank fleets that operate in America.

Actually, the federal government’s scheme to ban so-called "wetlines" from the underside of new tanker trailers and mandate purging systems on existing units appear to be solutions in search of a problem.

Wetlines are basically exposed loading pipelines underneath a tank trailer — mainly on petroleum containers — which routinely hold eight to 12 gallons of fuel that remains post-loading after the internal valve of the cargo compartment has been shut off. They were created when the industry switched from top to bottom loading in order to enhance fall protection standards as well as government air quality rules.

Except, now the American government doesn’t like them anymore.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is concerned that in serious T-bone collisions the wetlines can rupture and spill fuel, which could theoretically ignite and engulf the tractor-trailer. However, these "wetline events" are quite rare and are almost always minor when they do happen.


Slippery When Wet: An Obama admin rule that would
ban wetlines could kill more people that it will save, industry says.

There’s been only one documented case in the U.S. of a death resulting from a wetlines­incident since 2000. And even in that instance, there’s no telling whether it was solely the wetline that spilled fuel or if the damaged tank compartment was to blame.

After failing twice in the last 10 years to get the Department of Transportation (DOT) to write a wetlines removal rule (the DOT’s two cost-benefit analysis overruled the idea), the NTSB went straight to the Democratic-controlled House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which has since proposed a mandate that would require the installation of wetlines purging systems on all tanker trailers and the retrofitting of existing containers that haul hazmat, regardless of whether the product is flammable or not.

Each trailer would most likely need multiple purging systems that would use air or gas to push product back into each separate compartment.

Although trailer makers will have to comply two years after the rule passes, it appears that the retrofitting provisions won’t likely kick-in until 2020.

"At first blush that seems like a positive because it would have been really disruptive if it took place in 2012," says John Conley, National Tank Truck Carriers president. "But with these trailers that have 25 years service, if you bought one in the last few years, you’re still probably going to have to do a retrofit."

In an interview with Today’s Trucking, Conley says that having "failed twice to accomplish their objective through the regulatory process," the NTSB is trying to impose its will, based on flimsy evidence, through a more sympathetic Congress. He says the agency is trying to pad its stats in support of the rule by contacting tank fleets involved in recent accidents to gauge whether any product specifically escaped from wetlines.

Vern Seeley of Saint John-based petroleum hauler RST Industries runs tankers all along the eastern seaboard and he thinks the American rule "is political, for sure." 

Lost on regulators, he says, is how far tanker safety has come in the last 20 years.

"We’ve done some great things with roll stability, air operated emergency valves to limit spillage, and we build them stronger than they ever have in the past," says Seeley.

He pegs the up-front costs of retrofitting a single trailer at about $10,000 CND. That doesn’t include the two weeks of equipment downtime, lost revenues, plus the cost to train drivers on the purging system, which would need to be operated after every delivery, adds Seeley, who — as an influential industry voice on the working committee of the Council of Deputy Ministers Responsible for Transportation and Highway Safety — has been instrumental in getting similar proposals taken off of the table in Canada.


Pipe Dreams: The controversial wetlines proposal includes all
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ignore straight trucks and combo vehicles like Michigan Doubles.

Industry’s objections to a wetlines mandate — especially the retrofit requirements — isn’t all about dollars and cents, however. The argument that such a rule would cause far more fatalities than it would ­prevent is quite defendable, says Conley.

There have been 14 documented cases in Canada and the U.S. over the last 10 years where technicians doing installation work on tankers have been killed or seriously injured because the equipment was not meticulously cleaned and purged of all vapors.

"There’s lots of places for vapors to hide, say, in a little pump," explains Seeley. "The gasoline vapors could travel back into the tank. You do a little welding …"


"Just like a bomb," he says.

Conley doesn’t want to consciously overstate the dangers, but he won’t hold back when addressing the point either: "I do work for an association and associations have been known to blow smoke sometimes," he says. "But I truly believe you will kill more people with this legislation than you will save out on the roadway. Honestly. "The [regulators] don’t want me to say that, and have asked me not to. But I won’t stop because it’s true."

He isn’t claiming that the challenge of purging is insurmountable. "But it’s not necessary when you consider all the [costs] involved, and more importantly, the concept of retrofitting all those trailers can be scary."

He’s hoping that cooler heads will prevail, but so far legislative staff doesn’t seem overly impressed with the industry’s arguments. His fear is that the wetlines mandate will come down to a "political, not regulatory" decision.

Like that hasn’t happened a lot lately. 

(Read the complete story in the October print issue of Today’s Trucking).

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