A new federal program designed to detect potentially dangerous truck shipments of radioactive or hazardous material has yielded violations in half the cases of truckers stopped by Maryland State Police, according to Lt. Henry C. Rockel, coordinator of the state police's traffic safety program.

One recent spot check at the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge snared a truck carrying old electrical transformers that were leaking the toxic material PCB (polychlorinated biphenyls). The driver was issued a citation and was required to repackage the transformers into larger drums before continuing the trip.

Maryland and Washington state are the two states that are helping to establish a model hazardous materials enforcement program, paid for through a $180,000 U.S. Department of Transportation contract.

In the three weeks after Dec. 9, when the three-year contract began, a squad of six Maryland State Police officers assigned to the project issued 54 warnings and 17 citations to truckers, turning up one violation in every two inspections, Rockel said. Two of the warnings, but no citations, were issued to haulers of radioactive loads.

By contrast, the police issued about eight citations a month in 1980, and about six per month the year before.

"Without the federal assistance, we wouldn't have been able to stop half the violators," Rockel said. He predicted there would be more citations and fewer warnings as the trucking industry learned of the program. "We're looking for the cooperation of the industry," he said.

Most violations involved trucks with improperly labeled contents, said Sgt. Ken Harry of the state police. "You hate to go to an accident where a truck's turned over and the operator doesn't know what he's carrying," said Harry. "You step in poison or gas and it's too late then."

There are a growing number of trucks using Maryland roads carrying corrosive materials, toxic chemicals, gasoline, propane and other hazardous substances, Harry said. "The industry has really never been monitored before."

The squad is concentrating on the busiest truck routes: I-95, I-70, I-83, I-270, the Maryland portion of the Capital Beltway, the Baltimore Beltway and Maryland State Rte. 3.

Under the program, troopers select trucks for a 30-minute inspection, which includes a check of documents showing what is being carried, how the load is labeled and whether there is any sign of leakage. Special detectors also check for radioactivity.

The federal contracts require Washington and Maryland to adopt complex guidelines for transporting radioactive and hazardous materials.

While some states have welcomed the federal involvement, others, such as Ohio, that have strong programs to regulate hazardous waste transport, have fought federal preemption of their regulations.

To help Maryland officials, Transportation Department officials from the hazardous materials training facility at Oklahoma City were sent to state police headquarters in Pikesville for a series of special training sessions last fall.

"We have carefully plotted where all of the hazardous and radioactive transport accidents were over the past several years, to keep a running account of patterns," Rockel said. "So far, though, we haven't detected any clear pattern."

Four other states--Illinois, South Carolina, Nevada and Michigan--also receive federal assistance for smaller hazardous waste enforcement programs. But because of budget cuts, said Leon (Lee) Santman, director of the DOT's materials transportation bureau, these programs won't be continued.

"We were about to open the program to any state willing to take a look at better controls over hazardous waste transportation," Santman said, noting that 25 states had shown an interest, but there is no longer money for the program.

"There's a limitation on how pushy a federal agency like our can be in rapping people on the knuckles for violations," Santman said. "So it is much easier to turn that duty over to local state law enforcement personnel."