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Hazardous Materials Transport on High Alert - 2001-09-30

U.S. officials say that of the scores of people detained in the wake of terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, nearly two dozen had applied for special permits to transport hazardous materials in the United States. Across the country, transportation officials, truck driver training facilities, and even truckers themselves are now on a heightened state of alert.

In Palm Beach County, north of Miami, Albert Hanley runs a certification school for truckers seeking a special license to transport hazardous materials ranging from fuel and other explosives to poisons and chemicals. He says that several weeks before the September 11 attacks, a group of what he calls three foreign-sounding men came to his school saying they needed licenses, but refusing to answer most questions.

"They were very abrupt," said Mr. Hanley. "They needed to get them [licenses] right away. Our representative asked them some very basic screening questions that we typically ask applicants. They were very reluctant to give that information out."

Mr. Hanley was interviewed by the FBI earlier this week. Federal officials say some detainees who sought hazardous materials licenses may have had links to the terrorists who attacked New York and Washington, but add that definitive proof has yet to be assembled. Nevertheless, Albert Hanley stresses the very possibility of terrorists taking the wheel of a tanker truck is chilling. "You think about the worst case scenario," he said. "You think about a fuel truck with gasoline or something like that."

A spokesman for Florida's transportation department, Kenny Morris, says securing a hazardous materials license is no easy task. Applicants must fulfill strict requirements. "These drivers have to be physically fit," he explains. "They have to have a valid medical certificate from a physician. Then, they have to pass a written test and a driving test and show proficiency in the transportation of hazardous materials. It's pretty in-depth."

But Mr. Morris adds that an applicant need not be a U.S. citizen. He says that as the law now stands, anyone of any country who is legally in the United States may seek a license.

Kenny Morris notes federal official have contacted all state transportation departments asking for help in the battle against terrorism. "They have asked our assistance in beefing up enforcement throughout Florida," he said. "We are going to be stopping haz-mat [hazardous materials] vehicles in all our ports, all terminal areas, and also at our scale [weighing] facilities. We are going to be cross-referencing driver information with lists [of possible suspects] that have been provided by the FBI."

Mr. Morris went on to say that truck drivers themselves are also being enlisted to keep a watchful eye on hazardous materials. "We are putting together a flyer that we are going to be distributing to all the drivers we come in contact with and advising them: 'if you see something suspicious, something just doesn't look right, give this number a call.' These truck drivers talk on the CB's, they are a very tight-knit family, they pride themselves on being patriots. Who better to find someone who is not a [legitimate] truck driver than a truck driver?" said Mr. Morris.

A truck packed with explosives was used in the 1998 bombing of a U.S. embassy in East Africa. U.S. officials say they hope to prevent similar attacks at home.