Opinion: Enforcing existing laws might have averted some of last week’s trucking hazmat incidents

Staff Photo By Robin Rudd / Personnel see to the cleanup of a tractor-trailer hauling chemicals that caught fire Thursday evening near East Ridge, triggering a major hazmat response and shutting down part of Interstate 24.

It's not your imagination.

The first week of August saw a rash of tractor-trailer incidents on area roads that required hazardous materials teams to respond.

› The driver of a FedEx truck on state Highway 153 smelled fumes, saw smoke and pulled over to call 911 on Wednesday. The Chattanooga Fire Department's hazardous materials team determined that a tote in the back of the truck had a hole and was leaking organic peroxide. The incident closed Highway 153 and Lee Highway. The fire department teams with the help of Marion Environmental helped clean up the scene.

A tractor-trailer hauling organic peroxide and sodium hydroxide just off McBrien Road caught fire Thursday night. The preliminary investigation by the Chattanooga Fire Department showed that, like the Highway 153 incident, a leak inside the containers in the Averitt Express trailer caused a chemical reaction and resulted in the fire. The event caused the closure of Interstate 24 and South Terrace and the evacuation of residents within a half mile of the fire. The East Ridge Fire Department, the Chattanooga Fire Department and its hazmat team, with the help of a crash truck from the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport, 80 tons of dirt from the Tennessee Department of Transportation and the environment cleanup company Hepaco, handled the scene.

› On Sunday morning, a tractor-trailer on Interstate 75 at the split with Interstate 24 wrecked and lost 200 gallons of diesel fuel. The trailer in the incident had the logo of Nussbaum Transportation, a firm out of Hudson, Illinois. The Chattanooga Fire Department and its hazmat team, along with Tri-State Environmental, provided cleanup services.

› On Sunday morning, less than an hour later than the first incident, a tractor-trailer jackknifed on Interstate 24 at the ridge cut and lost 150 gallons of diesel fuel. The trailer in the incident had the logo of Penmark Transportation, a firm out of Bensenville, Illinois. As with the other Sunday event, the Chattanooga Fire Department and its hazmat team, along with Tri-State Environmental, helped clean the area.

No injuries were reported in any of the incidents.

The first two incidents occurred in dry weather, were not attached to wrecks and involved organic peroxides, which are chemicals used in a wide range of laboratory and plastics manufacturing applications, are unstable, and require care in transportation, handling and storage.

When organic peroxide and sodium hydroxide burn, according to the Chattanooga Fire Department, they release vapors that can be harmful by causing skin irritation and respiratory issues. The federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation also became involved in the recent events to, among other things, test area water to be sure it was still usable.

The second pair occurred on rain-slickened interstates, were single-vehicle crashes and involved diesel fuel, which must be transported in diesel fuel transportation units only, which themselves must be conspicuously marked as containing diesel fuel and should contain no more than 500 gallons of diesel fuel at a time.

No reports indicated the drivers were ticketed for driving too fast for conditions, but it would not be uncommon for truckers moving through the area if they exceeded the speed limit. The I-75/I-24 split already has the added problem of being under construction, and the ridge cut on I-24 is perilous rain or shine.

Chances are, the problem will get worse before it gets better — if it does. Chattanooga, after all, is a major crossroads of interstate routes, I-75, I-24 and I-59, and the city is, in the words of Forbes, the "Silicon Valley of Trucking," with its fastest growing companies in the trucking and logistics industries.

Trucks today move roughly 72.6% of the nation's freight by weight, and the number of all truck registrations — public, private and commercial — in the U.S. grew 93.5% from 2000 to 2021. According to the trucking industry, there were about 4.06 million semi-trucks operating in the U.S. as of 2021.

We're not about to suggest a raft of new truck regulations for the industry, and we don't know if what we're about to say would have made any difference in the four hazmat-related truck incidents last week, but we do believe all current industry and highway rules about trucks should be enforced.

That would mean, for instance, keeping trucks off the left lane ascending the ridge cut. That would mean enforcing speeds around interstate work areas. That would mean companies making sure hazardous chemicals are safely secured on trucks, trucks with hazardous cargo are properly marked and drivers know what they are carrying. And that would mean drivers keeping current on all safety regulations.

All that won't prevent every accident — or container leak — but it would help and save the cost of local, state and federal services that had to be brought to bear in the recent incidents.