30 Years Ago: January 1990

// By Peter Mackay on 1 Jan 2020
30 Years Ago: January 1990

HCB began its second decade of publication inauspiciously, with a rather obvious misprint on the cover, showing it as the January 1989 issue. Inside, however, it was business as usual, with extensive coverage of recent regulatory activity, our annual survey of steel drum manufacturing, a review of the bulk liquids storage terminal market, and the latest news from the tank container and road logistics sectors.

It was also business as usual in editor Mike Corkhill’s Comment column which, as tradition dictates, used the turning of a decade to look back over the major changes since HCB was first published in January 1980. That decade had begun, he said, with governments and industry in Europe continuing to pay lip service to the idea of harmonising the regulations governing the transport of dangerous goods; however, the impending creation of the single European market at the end of 1992 and the planned opening of the Channel Tunnel the following year had concentrated minds wonderfully, putting pressure on the regulators to resolve the outstanding differences between RID/ADR and the international modal rulebooks.

In addition, the end of the transitional period that would see the US end the use of non-UN specification packaging as from 1 January 1991 had “cornered” the country, Mike said, and “will force some degree of acceptance of the international regulatory system” in its “unique” domestic controls.

Mike also spoke about the new groundswell of public opinion underpinning the emerging environmentalist movement; this, he hoped, would drive a resolution of some issues that had been languishing through the 1980s, not least the adequate provision of shoreside reception facilities for tank washings, as required by Annex II of Marpol, along with the agreement of liability and compensation schemes.

Those forces are still with us, as is the apparently unstoppable litany of major accidents. The 1980s had seen Bhopal, Mexico City and the Exxon Valdez oil spill; the 2010s had its own disasters, not least the rising tide of major containership fires, but also events such as Lac-Mégantic, Deepwater Horizon, Tianjin, West Fertilizer and others too numerous to mention.

Mike cautioned against knee-jerk reactions to such events, saying that the UN system of regulating the movement of dangerous goods was (and, from a 2020 perspective, still is) the best method of ensuring safety; but it needs to be applied consistently and, most importantly, it has to be rigorously enforced.

But he was optimistic: “These are exciting times, with regional barriers, both economic and political, crumbling fast,” Mike said. Those trends would, he felt, help to drive a “renewed attack on the problems associated with dangerous goods transport, but in a totally harmonised way”.

Thirty years on from those words, harmonisation across modes and regions has progressed rapidly and has had some impact on safety levels in certain transport sectors. On the other hand, those regional barriers, both economic and political, have been reappearing, with a rise in isolationism, anti-intellectualism and nationalism driving increasing protectionism, with an impact on trade, and increasing volatility in global commodity markets. Those forces are threatening to roll back the advances made in the decades since HCB’s founding and undo much of the good work that has been achieved.

These are still exciting times, but in a rather different way.

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