Port St. Lucie, Florida
Famous for his fanatical attention to detail, Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan jolted us from our sleeper berth by an egregious error.
How do I know this? Because I have an almost-expired Hazardous Materials endorsement on my Commercial Drivers License.
We cannot pull a HazMat load without this endorsement. And we cannot get this endorsement without a background check, which includes fingerprints — yet again, for a fee, of course. Since we have been driving, this is the fourth fingerprint and background check that we’ve paid for, and they are not cheap.
The computer was down throughout the state for three days last week. On Friday, I was told “sometime next week.” Maybe Monday? Maybe not.
We were late comers to the five-season series about Walter White, the brilliant, but beaten-down-by-life chemist, with, it turns out, an entrepreneurial passion and a zest for financial conquest.
Since we hit the road six years ago, I have been attracted to Albuquerque, New Mexico, Walter White’s home town. From I-40, high in the driver’s seat we can peek at the houses and buildings as we cruise by. Maybe it’s the glorious sun that rose unfailingly — 330 days a year — into a sparkling cerulean blue sky when I was terrified of every car buzzing around my tractor. But it was only this year that we had time to visit.
Just as promised, Breaking Bad, is the most compelling TV I have ever watched. The premise, social commentary, the writing, the flawed characters, a surprising hero and the location. Riveting, thrilling, satisfying. Except for one detail.
While actor Aaron Paul, who portrays Mr. White’s cooking partner, Jesse Pinkman, assured the world on BBC’s Top Gear that Gilligan spent hours debating such details as the color of Mr. White’s wife’s toenail polish and hired chemists to ensure the meth recipe was correct, we were stunned to see that he missed an easy-to-determine but important detail.
A detail — the use of a Hazardous Material, hydrofluoric acid — that was twice critical to the plot line, and that any trucker with a Hazardous Materials endorsement could have told him.
“Like what?” I asked.
“Like since they’re flouting the law cooking meth, they’re also flouting the hazmat placarding rules.”
This is the fictional and factual operation of scrupulously efficient people. Character Gustavo Fring, owner of Los Pollos Hermanos, Mr. White’s initial business competition for the meth market, hid in plain sight. Details counted to him. Mr. White, insisted on a hospital-sanitary lab for his superior product because details counted. And the creator, Gilligan, a known master of research, was meticulous.
Why, when it was so easy to find, was this detail overlooked?
Chemist White explained that only a plastic barrel can be used when dissolving a body in hydrofluoric acid. We saw the disastrous results when Jesse poured it into a bathtub, eating through the porcelain and the floor in his aunt’s house.
Although there’s no Hazard Class for dissolved human remains, Mr. White shipped the chemical remains of a body with the WRONG packaging label.
The Hazardous Materials Compliance pocketbook is very clear on the markings for this chemical. A corrosive, UN1790, Hydrofluoric acid, is a Hazard Class 8. The placard or label is white and black and shows a chemical poured onto a hand. Breaking Bad used a “yellow 2” label with the hand.
Before you ask, I am overlooking the other discussion that only lye, UN1824, Sodium Hydroxide, Hazard Class 8, a different corrosive, is the typically-used, body-dissolving chemical.
Hazard Class 2 is gas not liquid. Flammable Gas is a red placard, Non-Flammable Gas is a green placard. There is a 2 yellow placard, it’s for oxygen. A gas. There is a hazard class 2.3 for poison. There is a skull and crossbones on a 2 white placard that marks an inhalation hazard. A GAS hazard. There is no yellow 2 marking for a CORROSIVE liquid. Period. There is only one style of class 8 “corrosive” hazardous material markings.
Stranger yet, for a meticulous person like Gilligan, is that some Production Assistant obviously looked something up. The placard has the key visual of liquid pouring onto the hand, but the label is the wrong color and wrong Hazard Class. Why not get it right?
Truck drivers don’t have this luxury. We are responsible for ensuring the paperwork is correct and meets all regulations. Technically, the driver on that shipment should have refused to take a wrongly placarded Hazard Materials load. Truck drivers in America are the final check, on which safety hinges, on whether a hazardous materials load has been properly packaged, certified and loaded. Whether it carries the correct shipping papers.
In typical American-corporate fashion, most HazMat shipping papers are different, and largely unfathomable, because the shipper, typically a giant corporation has shoved the responsibility off to the lowest person on the responsibility totem — me.
Doesn’t it make sense that when safety is the paramount issue, there should be one, standard, official, approved, version of HazMat shipping papers, so that everyone can quickly see that it is correct or not. And in our new world of the Internet this can be available 24/7, just like trucking, and easily downloaded.
The HazMat Bills of Lading that we see are often sloppily put together, yet the responsibility lies with the driver, who has the least control over the process and the most to lose. It’s the Owner Operator who has deadheaded for the load and if she doesn’t take it she has lost money. If she decides to take the load and anything is amiss it is entirely her responsibility, including financially, and the penalties are onerous.
When the authorities, politicians, the DOT, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), and others say that safety is paramount, I snort in derision.
Florida’s DAVID resurfaced. We have completed the Hazardous Materials endorsement process.
As MacGyver says, the drug dealers blatant disregard for HazMat rules is a gateway offence to other more serious offences like flouting the Hours of Service rules.
Pulling HazMat isn’t for sissies, Mr. Gilligan. When you need an expert consultant on trucking, or HazMat, and its perils, you can find me here.