INEFFICIENCIES at US-Mexico border crossing points continue to slow truck shipments of chemicals and other hazardous materials. Growing numbers of shippers and even some truck fleets are turning to rail transloading as a way to avoid some of the border congestion and security-related delays.

The latest snag for the trucking side came in the Department of Transportation spending bill that was passed by Congress. The bill contains a provision that adds yet another regulatory hoop for Mexican and Canadian carriers to jump through.

Passed by 339-70 in the House of Representatives, the measure would require that foreign trucks entering the United States demonstrate compliance with the US Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. It's another effort by the anti-Mexico lobby to block the trucking provisions contained in the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Irritation with the continued roadblocks to NAFTA implementation was very apparent during the Dangerous Goods Advisory Council seminar on cross border transportation of dangerous goods that was held October 25 and 26 in San Antonio, Texas. Seminar participants included representatives from the US and Mexican federal governments. Moderators for the seminar were Felipe Riancho, director general of Riancho & Associates, and Charles Wilson, editor of Modern Bulk Transporter.

More difficulty

Cross-border transportation of chemicals actually has become more difficult in the years since ratification of NAFTA, according to Guillermo Berriochoa, president of Transportes Inter-Mex. It's a problem that is having a profound impact on trade efficiency.

“I thought we were living in an age of global markets, and I thought NAFTA was supposed to simplify transportation across North America,” he said. “In reality, more barriers have been added over the years, and transportation has become more difficult, rather than easier.”

With all of the problems getting trucks across the US-Mexico border, carriers and shippers are looking for alternatives. “In Mexico, we've found that we can avoid some of the border headaches with transloading,” he said. “We've seen a steady increase in the number of truck-rail transfer facilities in Mexico. For instance, my company started Transbordos, which specializes in hazardous materials shipments.”

Martin Rojas, American Trucking Associations, agreed that delays in implementing the NAFTA trucking provisions have been a major source of frustration for both Mexican and US carriers. “We're stuck in limbo right now, and nothing will change very soon,” he said.

He went on to highlight one of the challenges: Mexican carriers must undergo US DOT inspection before being allowed to operate in the United States, and half of the inspections must be conducted in Mexico by US officials, which is not currently allowed. However, Mexico already allows other types of inspections of Mexican companies by the Food and Drug Administration and the US Department of Agriculture.

Educational outreach

Kristopher Wyatt, an auditor for the US Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, said that the carrier inspections should be viewed as an educational outreach. “They aren't meant as a barrier to entry,” he said. “We're anxious for all of the delays and roadblocks to be eliminated.”

Security issues seem to be creating both roadblocks and delays. Mexican and Canadian hazmat drivers currently don't qualify under the Transportation Security Administration's fingerprint-based background check program, which excludes foreign citizens.

While more lanes for the FAST (Free and Secure Trade) program have been opened at many of the crossing points along the US-Mexico border, there is still no FAST lane at the Colombia bridge, where hazmat shipments moving through Laredo, Texas, must cross. Laredo is a main crossing point for hazmat cargoes moving by truck between the United States and Mexico.

FAST is one of the US Customs programs that were developed to improve the security of international shipments in the wake of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. The programs are working, but they do have some weaknesses.

Security weakness

Most notably, domestic Mexican carriers aren't included in the FAST and Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism. While drivers who take shipments back and forth across the border are covered, those drivers and carriers operating 100% inside Mexico are not eligible for the program.

“That's the weak point in these security programs,” said Frank de Los Santos, US Customs and Border Protection. “The best we can do is recommend that the carriers participate in the Business Anti-Smuggling Coalition (BASC), an international industry-driven effort.”

J L Gonzalez, US Department of Homeland Security/Customs and Border Security, also discussed the importance of an effective border security program. “We try not to hold up any shipment, but our responsibility is to protect the homeland,” he said. “We don't want to stop the flow of goods.”

Customs agents need to be able to inspect the tractor-trailer rigs and railcars hauling cargo between the United States and Mexico. “In an effort to do that safely, we're using large drive-through X-ray units,” he said. “We've got 13 of those units in Laredo.”

Gonzalez also pointed out the importance of making sure that all documentation is in order. In addition shippers, carriers, and freight forwarders must provide documentation in an electronic format. “Paper doesn't work anymore,” he said. “Document transfer in Europe is almost seamless. We need to reach that level in North America.”

While there are some snags, rail shipments of hazardous materials seem to encounter fewer difficulties moving between the United States and Mexico. One reason is railroad compatibility that extends from the Yukon to the Yucatan. For instance, track gauges are the same, and rail tankcars are constructed in largely the same way regardless of country of origin.

“We have 1.7 million carloads of hazmat moving between the United States and Mexico every year,” said William Schoonover, staff director of the hazardous materials division at the Federal Railroad Administration. “We're doing everything we can to ensure that these shipments move as smoothly as possible.”

Agreement came from Frank Hernandez, Grupo Transportacion Ferroviaria Mexicana SA (TFM). “We used to have problems with sampling requirements when tankcars were entering Mexico, but we worked out a solution with SCT (Secretaría de Comunicaciones y Transportes),” he said. “I don't believe any differences are insurmountable. We can make this NAFTA dream a reality.”

A big challenge for both rail and highway carriers is keeping up with the hazardous materials transport regulation in the United States and Mexico. Since NAFTA was adopted in 1992, significant progress was made in harmonizing the US and Mexico hazmat transport regulations. Major differences still remain, though.

Mark Connolly, Akzo Nobel Chemicals Inc, pointed out that DOT has no reciprocity arrangement with the Mexican regulations (called NOMS). Weight limits between the two countries are significantly different, and shippers and carriers must make sure that equipment coming into the United States complies with US rules.

The NOMS don't recognize the DOT toxic inhalation hazard (TIH) zone materials and the more stringent bulk packaging required for those products. The NOMS also do not recognize the DOT corrosive exception. Shippers and carriers must make sure that vehicles have the correct placards.

RSPA website

“We show the differences between the US and Mexico regulations on our website,” said Shane Kelley, US DOT Research and Special Programs Administration. “It's important to understand that Mexico regulations don't necessarily harmonize with our 49CFR. They primarily harmonize with the United Nations transport guidelines.”

Mexico also has a more complex process for updating and modifying its hazardous materials transport regulations. All regulations must be reviewed every five years or they expire. Revisions or just reratification must be approved by Mexico's Congress.

“We can't adopt new UN standards the way you do in the United States,” said Irma Flores, an official with SCT. “We have to follow the formal process for revising the NOMS. We have to update each individual standard. It's a lengthy process. In the United States, you can adopt the latest UN standards by publishing a single HM rule.”

That's one reason why the MC300-series cargo tank standards are still in place, rather than the newer DOT400-series standard used in the United States and Canada.

Kelley pointed to the regulatory differences in calling for more cooperation with Mexico and Canada on hazmat transport issues. “We also need to work together more closely within the United Nations on dangerous goods transport issues,” he said. “We need a unified North American perspective at the UN.”

Riancho, a former transport official in Mexico's SCT, said that it's time for Canada, Mexico, and the United States to create a North American model regulation for hazmat transport. Many of the border-crossing problems that specifically impact hazmat shipments could be eliminated with this step.