Guide to munitions shipped by truck to Hampton Roads
It's a secret, so shhhh, don't tell anybody.
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Trucks haul tons of munitions on area roads. What are the risks?
By TOM HOLDEN, The Virginian-Pilot
© October 14, 2007
Last updated: 10:00 PM
"If folks only knew what we were carrying. A lot of drivers out there have blinders on." Alan Craig, a truck driver who hauls munitions Laura Elizabeth Pohl | Special to The Virginian-Pilot
They prefer the night, slipping along routes that avoid tunnels.
They avoid rush hour because creeping through traffic in Hampton Roads attracts attention, and discretion in this business is everything.
Most trucks look like any others that haul goods on the highway: white trailers, or flat-beds with simple metal boxes strapped on top.
The only clue to the cargo hangs discretely on the side of the truck: an orange placard labeled with the word "EXPLOSIVES."
Hidden in plain sight among minivans and pickup trucks, the semi trailers are the vanguard of a $47 million-a-year business that delivers conventional munitions to regional military bases.
Every week, tractor-trailer trucks loaded with tons of bullets, bombs, rockets and plastic explosives rumble down Hampton Roads' busiest thoroughfares alongside a largely unsuspecting public.
Each shipment is different. Some days the trucks carry explosives powerful enough to level a building, while other times the loads are portable missiles such as the Javelin, an anti-tank weapon lethal enough to take down an aircraft.
Few motorists ever seem to notice, which is what the U.S. Department of Defense and its select contractors prefer.
"We try to keep a low profile," said Daryl Deel, who recently stepped down as president at R&R Trucking Inc. of Duenweg, Mo., one of 17 companies nationwide contracted to haul arms, ammunition and explosives for the military.
"We like to go down the highway without anyone knowing what we're doing," Deel said.
For the most part, that's exactly what happens. But they are watched closely and, when necessary, accompanied by secret escorts riding just out of sight, according to industry and defense officials.
Since 2003 when the Iraq war began, private trucking companies have delivered more than 30,800 tons of conventional munitions to military bases in Hampton Roads, according to the U.S. Army's Joint Munitions Command. The command oversees the production, storage and shipment of arms, ammunition and explosives to all service branches nationwide, from 500-pound bombs to rifle rounds.
The shipments to Hampton Roads represent about 2 percent of the 1.5 million tons of munitions that have been shipped worldwide for the U.S. military during the past five years, according to the command.
Most of the munitions coming into the region since 2003 were headed for the Yorktown Naval Weapons Station along the York River, where more than 20,100 tons have been delivered, and Norfolk Naval Station, where more than 6,100 tons have been trucked in.
The region is rich with rail and water routes, but trucks are preferred because the volumes sent to local bases do not require the huge carrying capacity of a train. Barge shipments generally are reserved for the Pacific Coast.
For security reasons, company and Defense Department officials declined to talk about what routes are used to reach local bases from weapons plants scattered throughout the country.
Secrecy also shrouds the organization that tracks all road shipments of military ordnance. Officials at the Defense Transportation Tracking System, which is at Norfolk Naval Station and monitors the location and movement of trucks hauling munitions nationwide, declined requests for interviews.
But others offered insights into the secretive world of moving conventional munitions among the civilian population.
The industry prefers drivers - married couples are common - who can meet an unusual list of qualifications. They must pass a security clearance, possess a detective's eye for suspicious behavior and have a commercial driver's license for hauling hazardous materials.
It doesn't hurt if you mind your own business, either.
"I don't know how fast it is, or how big a hole it will make, or where it goes or what it does," said driver Alan Craig, who with his wife, Renee, hauls munitions for Baggett Transportation, a Birmingham, Ala., company that has carried munitions since World War II. "It'd be cool to ask all those questions and know all that stuff, but sometimes ignorance is bliss."
Alan and Renee Craig, seen during a stopover on a recent trip to Yorktown, haul munitions for Birmingham, Ala.-based Baggett Transportation. Laura Elizabeth Pohl | Special to The Virginian-Pilot
It's not that he doesn't understand how to transport hazardous loads.
"It's not like hauling a load of toilet paper," he said during a stopover on a recent trip to Yorktown. "You have to have a little bit of knowledge about what's going on back there."
Most shipments to Hampton Roads are sent to individual units that request them, either for training or other operational needs, said Stephen Abney, civilian spokesman for the Joint Munitions Command.
"When a unit deploys, they take a basic load, but they don't take the resupply with them," Abney said.
Munitions are designed to inflict maximum damage, but Abney and others said the risk to civilians during shipment is minimal because of the way in which they're packed.
Bombs are not shipped with fuzes - which are required for detonation - while other ordnance, such as plastic explosives, are transported without the means for ignition.
Fuzes and detonators are shipped separately and often installed in the field, closer to the moment of use, officials said.
"You could drop a pallet of 155 mm artillery shells and all they will do is bounce," said Rick Nesbitt, chief of the transportation division at Joint Munitions Command.
Other weapons, such as bullets, rocket-propelled grenades and certain shoulder-fired missiles, are packed ready to use. But this does not necessarily make them dangerous on the highway, military officials said.
"They're meant to explode at the right time - not when we have them but in the field," Abney said.
The solid rocket fuel that powers many hand-held missiles also is of particular concern because it can degrade over time, making it dangerous during shipping or to a soldier in the field. This is often the case with weapons manufactured more than a decade ago and recently pulled from storage, officials said.
"There is an aggressive program to sample rocket propellant to make sure it's within acceptable limits," Nesbitt said.
Fire remains a big concern to haulers and the military because a bomb and other explosives still can detonate when exposed to enough heat - a fact that is occasionally made dramatically public.
A placard on the lower left of the Craigs’ truck indicates explosives are aboard. The trucks are watched closely and, when necessary, accompanied by escorts riding just out of sight. Laura Elizabeth Pohl | Special to The Virginian-Pilot
In August 2005, a truck operated by R&R Trucking carrying 38,000 pounds of mining explosives overturned near Provo, Utah, because the driver was going too fast on a mountain road. The truck caught fire and burned for 17 minutes before detonating, creating a crater 70 feet wide and 30 feet deep in the two-lane road. The blast damaged a nearby railroad line, started numerous wildfires and injured about 20 people, none seriously.
Incidents like that are why munitions haulers fear fire and insist their truckers maneuver carefully through cities where the presence of heavy traffic increases risks of wrecks.
"If folks only knew what we were carrying," Craig said. "A lot of drivers out there have blinders on. They just see a truck and have no idea what the orange placard means. Others do, and give us plenty of room.
"What gets me is when someone pulls in front of us and I have to come down hard" on the brakes, he said. "I always say, 'Buddy, if you only knew.' "
Last year, the companies delivered roughly 55,000 truckloads of munitions nationwide. Not all were without incident.
From Oct. 1, 2006, until Feb. 7, at least 30 wrecks involving trucks hauling ammunition or explosives were reported nationwide, although none locally, according to the Joint Munitions Command.
None of them was as dramatic as the crash on Aug. 4, 1985, when a tractor-trailer loaded with 10 2,000-pound bombs, known as MK84s, collided with a car on Interstate 40 near Checotah, Okla. The car's fuel tank ruptured and both vehicles caught fire.
The bombs exploded, creating a crater 27 feet deep and 35 feet wide. The explosion damaged 371 homes, a school and other buildings. No one was killed. Forty-nine people were injured, most after breathing smoke and gases from burning explosives.
The potential damage from such crashes is among the reasons the U.S. Department of Transportation forbids the shipment of high explosives and other hazardous materials through local tunnels.
In Hampton Roads, if a munitions truck were involved in a serious crash, local officials say they would treat it as any hazardous materials incident. Military bomb-disposal technicians also would be called for assistance.
Defense tracking records indicate the average notification time for police nationwide in the 30 known crashes was eight minutes, and the average notification time for the Defense Department was 18 minutes.
Bruce L. Evans, battalion chief for Norfolk Fire-rescue, said the department is prepared to deal with these types of incidents, although he said he has never had experience with such weapons.
"With the military so close here, they'll be one of the first people we call," he said.
On the highway, the trucking companies under contract with the Department of Defense are subject to the same rules and regulations governing the shipment of hazardous materials as trucks carrying nondefense-related loads - including passing muster at roadside inspection stations.
Records from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration show that trucks operated by the companies authorized to haul munitions underwent more than 23,900 random safety inspections nationwide in the past two years. That includes more than 8,600 hazardous materials inspections. All of the companies received satisfactory ratings.
Nationally, more than 5 percent of all trucks hauling hazardous materials were pulled off the road during the past 24 months because inspections found problems, according to federal inspection records. Among the munitions haulers, just 1.6 percent of their hazardous material loads were pulled off the road after a random inspection, records show. Available records do not specify the problems found with the trucks.
"We inspect a small percentage of what's going on," said Lt. Herb Brydges of the Virginia State Police.
If fire is a concern, theft is a bigger worry.
"The Department of Defense knows you very well before they entrust you with secrets," said Bill Wanamaker, director of government traffic and security operations for the American Trucking Association.
Trucking companies that want to haul arms, ammunition and explosives for the government must first prove their reliability by carrying less-sensitive cargo for a year before seeking munitions contracts, he said.
The companies must obtain federal security clearances for all drivers, dispatchers and any other employees who might have knowledge about shipments, according to military officials and the trucking companies.
"They have to be squeaky clean, both financially and in their family history," said David Bennett, executive vice president of Tri-State Motor Transit Co. in Joplin, Mo.
"Both sides of a family are checked out to see what they're involved with, what they're like," he said. "The driving record is most critical.... If a person had a ticket, they check into it. We, as a carrier, have zero say who is cleared to drive."
The background check involves criminal and travel histories extending 20 years into an applicant's past, Bennett said.
He said his company goes a step further: Mechanics who work on the munitions trucks also must get security screenings. Many of the drivers are former military personnel or police officers.
Trucking company officials said there's a shortage of long-haul munitions truckers. About 4,500 drivers hold interim or final security clearances nationwide. To compensate, companies say they offer incentives such as pay that is higher than the industry, signing bonuses for new workers, and sometimes a company-owned and maintained truck, Bennett said.
"Our driver turnover rate is about 30 percent in an industry that averages 130 percent a year," he said.
"We have a number of trucks sitting empty every day of the week," Bennett said. "It's very difficult to find two people who have an immaculately clean record, who want to be truck drivers, who don't mind being in an 8-foot box all day, moving 60 miles per hour down a highway."
Once cleared to drive, truckers follow a predetermined route. A global positioning device mounted in each truck's cab allows them to be tracked from the moment they leave a munitions depot until they arrive at a military base.
If a trucker has a problem, whether it's a small accident that would delay shipment or a threatening encounter with a potential criminal, he or she has a number of options, including an on-board device known as the "panic button."
"If the drivers see anything suspicious, or even if they don't feel comfortable about something, or if they have an accident, no matter how minor, they can push that button," said Nesbitt of the Joint Munitions Command.
Truckers also carry portable versions of the "panic button" that can summon help while outside the truck. If a driver hits either panic button, the first to respond will be the local police or fire department.
The button alerts defense transportation tracking officials to a change in a shipment's status, and an investigation immediately ensues. While shipments occasionally have been late, none has been lost or stolen, officials said.
"You learn to watch," said Craig, who is based in Carytown, Mo. "If someone walks up to the truck, you put eyes on them. I had a gentleman walk around the truck about six months ago in Memphis and I got out and said, 'What's going on?' "
After a short conversation, Craig said he told the man to leave.
The man appeared to start writing down information and when he got his phone out and began to make a call, Craig became more emphatic.
"I said, 'This needs to end right here! Right now! You need to walk away. This is a DoD load, and you are getting too much information off this truck.' "
The man protested that he was "just doing his job," and Craig said he responded by saying, "Either you leave now, or I'll do my job and hit my panic button."
After the man left, Craig decided the individual was simply curious, although he could not be 100 percent sure. With the threat of terrorism a constant worry, such encounters only heighten the industry's need for security, Craig said.
"The driving's done at night and that's to the driver's advantage," Craig said. "If Mr. I-hate-America is out there, he will have to look that much harder to see those placards. He will have to put more effort out to find us."
Truckers are not only tracked by GPS, they're often monitored by vehicles in the next lane by "transit teams" that check out driver behavior.
The Craigs said they had a team follow them when they were discovered driving slightly below the speed limit.
"They want to catch you in your natural environment," Craig said. "They want to make sure you're running speed limits, checking your tires, not swerving in and out of traffic, that you're doing what you're supposed to be doing."
Some holes in the safety net have emerged.
A report released shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, by what is now the Government Accountability Office found that some of the country's most potent conventional weapons had been stored at trucking terminals with inadequate security.
The report, which has since been classified secret, prompted the closing of some terminals where long-haul munitions truckers had been authorized to rest, officials said.
Industry officials today insist security is tight and is helped by a professional pride that reaches beyond rules. "The drivers and company owners love this type of business because they feel proud to haul (Department of Defense) freight," said the trucking association's Wanamaker. "They are exceedingly vigilant at it because of their personal regard of whose freight they carry and that it be in proper order when received by the war fighter.
"Many drivers are former military and feel they are in the service of their brothers and sisters in uniform," he said. "That pride adds a special measure of attention that security regulations cannot reach."
The haulers prefer that shipments travel directly to their assigned destinations. But when a stop is made to refuel or for food and bathroom breaks, one driver must always stay with the truck.
To ensure the ammunition containers are not tampered with, each truck trailer is locked with a metal, numbered seal. If the seal is tampered with, an investigation will follow, officials said.
Federal firearms regulations prevent truckers from carrying weapons, but armed escorts can accompany shipments, depending on the cargo. Defense officials and trucking executives declined to say what would require an armed escort, but acknowledged that escorts can take any number of disguises, including another semi trailer, a pickup or a more obvious military-style vehicle.
"It's the shippers' call," Tri-State's Bennett said.
National security alerts also can trigger tighter security.
In June, when federal authorities uncovered what they said was a plot to blow up the fuel depot at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, security officials briefly dispatched armed escorts for some munitions shipments.
After the 2001 terrorist attacks, the entire munitions hauling system underwent a security review that led to tighter restrictions, including the removal of some information from the trucking companies' Web sites, Deel said.
While Bennett and a few other trucking executives talked with The Virginian-Pilot about their operations, most of the other munitions haulers would not discuss their businesses. Information about the companies was provided by the Defense Department.
All but one of the companies declined repeated requests to speak with their drivers.
Most company representatives responded in a way similar to an executive of Mercer Transportation, a Louisville, Ky., arms shipper who did not want his name used.
"It's Mercer's policy to remain off the record," he said.
Tom Holden, (757) 446-2331, email@example.com