Ohio has a law that says if you want to truck radioactive material through the state you have to tell a state agency at least 48 hours in advance what you want to move and what route you want to take.
The law, known technically as a "prenotification requirement," is either (choose one):
* An unreasonable burden on interstate commerce that should be set aside (or preempted) by the federal government.
* An appropriate expression by the state of concern for the health and welfare of its citizens and therefore a legitimate exercise of its police powers.
This is more than just another example of tension between federal and state governments, because it includes the additional element of fear. More and more genuinely dangerous things are moving around the country and, if something were to go wrong in an urban area, they could cause a catastrophe.
Holmes Brown, of the National Governors' Association, frames the issue this way: " The Transportation Department's concern is to keep commerce moving; ours is health and safety."
The issue is taking shape over a DOT rule adopted on the last day of the Carter administration and scheduled to take effect next Feb. 1. It said that radioactive shipments would move on interstate highways, unless states come up with a suitable alternative.
It further said, in the fine print of an appendix, that state and local requirements for prenotification would be regarded as "inconsistent" with the federal rule.
Ohio disagreed and is suing. So is New York City, which is seeking to retain a ban on nuclear shipments through the city. That ban is perceived by some officials as a smokescreen for attempts by environmentalists to block operation of nuclear power plants under construction on Long Island.
Fred Millar, of the Environmental Policy Center, is busy alerting states to the problem. He said the interstate highway rule fails to provide for adequate local-state input and that the method by which states choose alternate routes is far too burdensome. "There is absolutely no doubt that the federal government is directly serving the interests of the chemical, nuclear and trucking industries who want to ship these things around the country without interference," he said.
E. Dennis Muchnicki, assistant attorney general for Ohio, agrees. "I consider this an issue of federal arrogance and capitulation to the trucking industry," said. He wants the state to be able to retain its 48-hour prenotification rule.
Leon D. Santman, director of DOT's Materials Transportation Bureau, said that "there are legitimate concerns" about the movement of hazardous materials, but that clearly there is also a federal interest in ensuring that trucks don't get stacked up at state lines waiting for clearances and licenses. Radioactive materials, he said, should not be sitting in one place for hours while a truck driver waits for the highway patrolman to finish checking his forms.
"We have, as a general policy, expressed grave misgivings about the real value of pre-notification," he said. "Our belief is that there is existing information on what has been happening which, along with projections of future actions, can provide a sound basis for local governments to make sound judgments on local preparedness . . . and give them the information they need to be responsive to the citizenry."
Congress is mulling the issue and it seems probable that a one-year study of prenotification will be required. "There is enough enamorment with prenotification that it's appropriate we re-examine our policy," Santman said.
It is possible that this issue, like others in the transportation of hazardous materials, will be worked out amiably. For example, DOT has vigorously insisted, and the states have agreed, on standardized warning placards for the sides of trucks carrying hazardous materials.
Further, DOT and the Environmental Protection Agency, working together, are about to complete a rule requiring a standard, single federal control form for truckers hauling hazardous wastes.
It seems like a small matter, but some truckers moving across the country have found themselves required to fill out as many as 22 different state and local forms for the same trip. Some of the forms are applications for licenses or permits, others are just for information. They contain basically the same information and provide controls to make sure shipments don't get lost.
"Neither we nor the EPA was anxious to mandate a form," said DOT's Santman. "We asked them the industry and the states to come up with something."
A single form is expected to emerge after a number of meetings involving DOT, EPA, the Association of State and Territorial Solid Waste Management Officials and the Hazardous Materials Advisory Council.