Better Cargo Data Would Have Helped In Spill, Report Says CAPTION: Picture 1, Firefighters worked to clean up Beltway chemical leak last night. BY RICH LIPSKE -- THE WASHINGTON POST

When a tanker truck sprang a leak on the Capital Beltway in Virginia late on a hot Monday afternoon last August, misery aplenty was in store for thousands.

Fire officials quickly determined that the tanker was leaking a hazardous, corrosive liquid and closed the Beltway between Shirley Highway and Van Dorn Street, stranding several thousand motorists on that 2 1/2-mile stretch for several hours. During the nine hours the Beltway remained closed, an estimated 34,000 cars were rerouted.

The Fairfax County Fire Department evacuated about 600 people from the surrounding area because of fears that vapors from the spill could cause serious injury if breathed or if they came in contact with skin.

Now the National Transportation Safety Board has issued a report on the incident, which started shortly before 5 p.m. Aug. 12. In its analysis, the board said that if the shipping documents carried by the truck driver had specified the concentrations of hazardous substances in the leaking liquid, the evacuation of the 600 people might have been unnecessary.

Lacking that information, "the well-trained fire department" properly took "a conservative approach" and evacuated the area "for the worst-case scenario," the report says.

"It was not until 10 p.m., five hours after arriving on scene, that the fire department finally was provided the results of an analysis confirming that the concentrations of hazardous materials . . . were low," the report says. The materials in question were waste from the cleaning of Navy ships at a shipyard in Portsmouth, Va. They were being trucked to a disposal facility in New Jersey.

The report said the shipping documents actually exceeded U.S. Department of Transportation requirements in the amount of information they contained. The board recommended a determination of "the need for additional information" on such papers.

Another recommendation is that the Defense Department establish "an effective 24-hour communication system" to provide local emergency personnel with information on threats presented by "explosive and other high-hazard Defense Department shipments involved in transportation accidents."

The report notes that a naval shipyard telephone number on the shipping paper "was called about 5:20 p.m., but no one answered."

The truck was 17 years old and had been sold five months before. At the time of sale, a test disclosed a leak through a corrosion hole in the tank wall, the report said, and the leak and some corroded weld seams were repaired.

The report found that the repairs and a subsequent inspection met Department of Transportation requirements but that those requirements are inadequate.