Theoretically, I’m a SME, a Subject Matter Expert, capitalized and underlined. While not sure of the proper pronunciation of the acronym, it could be Smeh, or Sih-mee, I prefer to think of it as Smee, Captain Hook’s right hand man (or is that left hand man?) of Peter Pan fame. Smee is a bit of a bumbler, as am I at times, at least I can be when it comes to answering the “why” and the “are you kidding” queries about Combustible Liquids that I often receive from students in the transportation classification courses I deliver. Most DG (HazMat) regulations make sense, and when they do make sense it makes my job as an instructor so much easier. I still hold to the quaint, old notion that I should not only teach my students what the regulations say, but that I should also motivate them to comply with the reg’s. But frankly, PHMSA’s (US DOT’s, 49CFR’s) Combustible Liquid regulations fall far short in many areas, such as common sense, consistency, and yes, the smell test.

I’ve had the good, no, not just good, great fortune to have two wise and supportive bosses in the couple decades I worked for multi-billion € (£, $, ¥, whatever) international corporations. You know who you are Badger Man and Meester Johnny. Among the other things I tried to learn from them is that many ‘higher-ups’ in big corporations don’t appreciate it when we regulatory geeks merely point out challenges and potential problems in our operations. They want accompanying solutions, or at least suggestions for possible solutions. Put another way, I believe that in todays corporate world they still sometimes shoot the messenger of bad tidings, but that a messenger can increase their chances of survival by providing some attempts at answers.

So, I’m going to share with you a letter to PHMSA I’ve been pondering, based upon the questions, comments, and feedback from my astute classification trainees. But, however unprofessional it is, and it is unprofessional, I’m not going to just complain, I’m going to offer my advice. Some of these types of letters have Question : Answer or Problem : Solution format, but I think I’ll use the Whining : 2 Cents Worth modification. See, I told you it would be unprofessional.

I’d say “recently”, but this has been dragging on for years, proposed rule-makings (or advance notices thereof) re Combustible Liquids have been issued and then later withdrawn. The good news is that some folks there recognize some problems, and the bad news is…, well, the bad news is that you’re getting this letter.

WHINING: What are we talking about anyway? 49CFR 171.2, 173.120, and 173.150 all seem to say that Combustible Liquids are part of Class 3, but when we look at 172.202(a)(3)(ii) we start to think that “Combustible Liquid” isn’t a hazard class (cuz it doesn’t have to be entered on a shipping paper for Combustible Liquid, n.o.s.). But then we look at the 172.101 Hazardous Materials Table and we see “Comb liq” in Column 3 next to Combustible Liquids, n.o.s., so we start to think that “Comb liq” is the hazard class, rather than “Combustible Liquid” or “3”. But then 172.101(d)(4) turns some Class 3 materials into “combustible liquid”. Wow, that’s a lot of buts. So, is it nothing, or Comb liq, or Combustible Liquid, or Class 3, or sometimes one and other times another and at different times a third?
2 CENTS WORTH: Be consistent. Decide whether Combustible Liquid is a separate hazard class or not. If it is a separate class, define it in its own section. If it isn’t a separate hazard class, leave it in Class 3 and call it Class 3 only. And then make every regulatory reference simple and consistent.
4 CENTS WORTH: Get rid of Combustible Liquids. Oops, I’m getting ahead of myself.

WHINING: Combustible Liquids aren’t men, and they aren’t all created equal. Bulk combustible liquids create international problems, mostly because of Combustible Liquid placards and the identification number NA1993, neither of which are recognized internationally. Non-bulk combustible liquids generally have issues that are only U.S. domestic issues.
2 CENTS WORTH: In all future plans for rulemakings, consider these two types of combustible liquids separately, and do NOT entertain any one solution for their vastly different types of problems, unless, of course, it’s…
4 CENTS WORTH: Get rid of Combustible Liquids completely. Darn it, again, I’m getting ahead of myself.

WHINING: Did I mention international shipment of bulk Combustible Liquids, and that darn placard that looks so much like a Class 3 placard but isn’t, and getting consignments placarded/unplacarded. So much for “seamless” facilitation of international DG commerce.
2 CENTS WORTH: Enforce the current rules, especially at international borders rather than just in port areas, OR, if you won’t fully and rigorously enforce, admit that it isn’t a safety issue after all.
4 CENTS WORTH: It isn’t a safety issue, as DGAC pointed out to you using your own safety data! Lumber and books and magazines can all present significant problems when set on fire, but the overall risk isn’t high enough to regulate them. So, why not take the same attitude to Combustible Liquids? When fire chiefs wanted to regulate certain foam furniture because of a persistent burning hazard, you turned them down.
6 CENTS WORTH: Work with US OSHA, and jointly approach the UN GHS Subcommittee to have combustible liquids regulated by GHS, so that transport can then harmonize globally.
8 CENTS WORTH: Change the warnings. Stop requiring a placard that can be confused with Class 3, and find some other visual warning method, a la “keep away from heat”, CAO, & marine pollutant. Then get rid of the NA1993 identification number, perhaps replacing it with an ID8xxx number adopted by the UN Subcommittee for DG.
10 CENTS WORTH: Get rid of Combustible Liquids.

WHINING: The classification of non-bulk, domestic, Combustible Liquids that started as Class 3, but have a flash point between 38oC and 60oC is ridiculously complicated, and may end up as Class 3 or Combustible Liquid or even non-regulated. Classification factors are size (173.150(f)(2) “in a non-bulk packaging”), mode (173.150(f)(1) “does not apply to transportation by vessel or aircraft”), destination (173.150(f)(1) “except where other means of transportation is impracticable”), and intended use (173.150(f)(2) “unless the combustible liquid is a hazardous … waste). Size, Mode, Destination, and Use, when most people think classification is based upon the intrinsic properties of the material.
2 CENTS WORTH: Get rid of Combustible Liquids.

Love, Cheers, Sincerely, Tongue-In-Cheek, Whatever,

I know such a letter could be much, much better written by an Andy Altemos or Frits Wybenga or Tom Ferguson, but I’m not a lawyer nor a former regulator. I’m just me, but you can call me Smee.

Written 1/2/2013 for HCB Magazine