Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis, under increasing pressure from state and local governments as well as the transportation industry, told Congress yesterday that the department will not cut back on oversight of hazardous materials transport as much as it had once planned.
Lewis' letter to Sen. Mark Andrews (R-N.D.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on transportation, said, "We have modified our earlier proposals to reflect better the concerns and sensitivity associated with hazardous materials transportation."
What he had really done was put out a big fire. In February, DOT had planned a 23 percent budget cut for the Materials Transportation Bureau, which is in charge of DOT's regulation of hazardous materials.
Now, Lewis said, the fiscal 1983 cut will be only 10 percent, including a staff reduction from 116 to 104. Those cuts will be clerical, not professional, according to several groups briefed on the plan.
The concern was that, without strong federal oversight, the complicated and burgeoning problems of moving hazardous materials would not mix with a saturated solution of state and local regulations.
Alan Beals, executive director of the National League of Cities, met with Lewis last week and praised the decision, but said that long-range issues still must be addressed.
The league has been working with transporters to reach agreeements on how to reduce the risk of accidents and spills of hazardous materials in cities and how to improve emergency preparedness.
Gail Crawford of the Hazardous Materials Advisory Council, which represents many transporters, said that "we're happy" with Lewis' move. "They basically promised that the Materials Transportation Bureau" will continue to function, she said.