by Lance Gay
Scripps Howard News Service
January 08, 2005
But murderers and convicted racketeers will no longer be permitted to drive hazardous materials on the nation's interstates.
"Arson is not always an act of terrorism," the Transportation Security Administration declared in proposing the new regulations that would permit the agency to review on a case-by-case basis whether convicted arsonists should get the special licenses allowing them to drive gasoline trucks, or other vehicles carrying hazardous materials.
Under the Patriot Act, the TSA - a branch of the new Department of Homeland Security - was directed to issue special federal certifications to the commercial licenses held by truck drivers who haul hazardous chemicals, gasoline tankers and explosives.
The government plans to begin issuing the new licenses Jan. 31. it estimates it will receive more than 2 million applications for the certifications.
Last May, the agency issued regulations that would have prohibited anyone convicted of arson from driving hazardous material trucks. But on Nov. 24 the TSA announced in the Federal Register that officials had changed their minds and no longer regarded arson as being among the most serious crimes warranting lifetime disqualification.
Amy von Walter, a TSA spokeswoman, said the agency considered arson to cover a broad category of crimes. "We wanted to ensure that we allowed for flexibility as we reviewed an individual's case," she said. The licenses will given only to drivers who have been out of prison for seven years.
While removing arson from the list of disqualifying offenses for hazardous material licenses, the agency said it was adding murder and racketeering convictions to the list of crimes.
"Murder is one of the most violent crimes on the list of disqualifiers and indicates a disregard for human life," the agency said.
The Owner-Operators Independent Truckers Association, the nation's largest association of independent truckers, is irate at one of the changes in the new rule that would relax rules preventing non-citizens from receiving permits.
The TSA wants to allow citizens of Mexico and Canada, along with people who have entered the United States under asylum visas or as refugees, to obtain the special driving permits.
Paul Cullen, a Washington attorney representing the independent truckers, said there is no way TSA can check the backgrounds of these immigrants to determine if they are a threat or not.
"It is grossly unfair to U.S. citizen drivers to allow persons whose backgrounds cannot be effectively checked to have the same rights and privileges as U.S. citizen drivers," he said.
TSA officials contend those admitted to the United States under asylum procedures are given FBI background checks, which TSA uses in its procedures to ensure potential terrorists aren't certified to drive hazardous materials.
"Our job is to ensure that those who handle hazardous material are properly vetted," said von Walter.
Cullen said truck drivers are alarmed over the public nature of the licensing procedure. He said denial of a person's "hazmat" license would result in drivers being blackballed from hauling other materials, even if there was a bureaucratic mistake.
"No carrier would bear the liability of retaining a driver who has been flagged a possible homeland security risk. Nor would they hire such a driver," Cullen said.
The industry is skeptical the government can implement the new regulations in such a short time, and protests the procedures are too costly. Truck drivers will be required to obtain clearances on the basis of their fingerprints, and fees for the hazmat certifications are estimated to cost about $100 each.
"We're not thrilled with this, but TSA has tried to assure us there will be no problems," said John Conley of National Tank Truck Carriers, Inc. "I hope there's no problem, but I'm not optimistic that is going to be the case."
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com