WASHINGTON (AP) -- Authorities pulled over thousands of trucks carrying hazardous cargo Thursday and ordered companies to review security after reports of people obtaining fraudulent licenses raised concerns about a possible terrorist threat.
The nationwide security dragnet involves more than 50,000 trucking companies carrying everything from chemicals used to make soap to gasoline and fertilizer, as well as a review of 2.5 million commercial driver's licenses.
On any given day as many as 76,000 tanker trucks with millions of pounds of hazardous cargo traverse the nation, according to industry estimates. For many of these products, release in a crowded area could be deadly.
"Everything is being looked at a lot harder," said John Conley, vice president of the National Tank Truck Carriers, which represents 200 companies that haul some of the most dangerous cargo, including poisonous chemicals and gases as well as highly flammable fuels.
Conley said transport companies are being deluged by demands from shippers to take extra precautions and ensure there are no problems with any of their drivers.
The heightened alert was triggered by disclosure that FBI agents investigating the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks had found that a number of Middle Eastern men had obtained fraudulent licenses to transport hazardous material.
Eighteen men had obtained such permits illegally from a state examiner in Pennsylvania. The FBI said Wednesday that none of those men is believed linked to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
But the state of alert remained in effect amid concern that someone might be planning a terrorist attack using one or more of the tens of thousands of 18-wheelers that haul toxic and explosive cargoes every day.
The Transportation Department asked state police and truck inspectors to conduct roadside checks of all trucks carrying hazardous material. The inspections, generally conducted at truck weigh stations, began Thursday, officials said.
The department also directed its field staff to visit thousands of trucking companies that specialize in hauling dangerous materials.
The FBI and other agencies also began to scrutinize 2.5 million licenses to carry hazardous material. The licenses, contained in a central federal database, are being scrutinized for unusual names and recent hires, and to see if some might have been obtained improperly.
"You never know what you're going to find," said David Longo, a spokesman for the Transportation Department's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
The roadside inspections will, in most cases, be limited to checks on driver's licenses and background. Many of the checks will be conducted by safety inspectors as well as highway patrol, officials said.
Paul Bomgardner, director of hazardous material transportation at the American Trucking Associations, said it's virtually impossible to check every truck. "If you tried to stop every truck you'd have backups for miles," said Bomgardner, who once worked as a state truck safety inspector in Maryland.
Chemical and fuel hauling companies are scrambling to make checks of their own, secure their fleets and review their rosters of drivers, according to industry officials.
Some companies are requiring two drivers on trucks hauling the most dangerous materials, limiting or banning stops en route, and telling drivers not to leave trucks unattended, according to an industry official.
While government officials and industry representatives have not received any indication of any specific terrorist threat involving hazardous material shipments, the potential for havoc is clear, they say.
A typical gasoline tanker truck carries as much fuel as did each of the jets that were flown into the World Trade Center. Sulfur trioxide, used to make soap, turns into sulfuric acid when exposed to the air or water and can cause severe lung damage.
Trucks carrying the most dangerous cargo -- such as radioactive material -- must carry special identification placards. Other trucks carrying less dangerous cargo must be identified only if large amounts are carried.
A driver can get a license to transport hazardous materials by simply taking a written test that is an optional part of the regular state examinations for commercial driver's licenses, officials said. With some exceptions, such as transporting nuclear materials, no additional background checks are normally required.
On the Net:
American Trucking Associations: http://www.truckline.com/
Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration: http://www.fmcsa.dot.gov/