Scrutinize haz-mat bills carefully so you only pay what's necessary

Fire departments that handle hazardous-materials spills are getting more aggressive in their demands for reimbursement from spill generators. That's the word from Tom Moses, an environmental attorney and president of the Spill Center, an environmental claims management company based in Acton, Mass.

"Transporters involved in spills are being charged for everything from the cleaning, maintenance, and replacement of gear to the salaries and benefits of emergency responders," says Moses. "Regulations authorizing reimbursement vary from one jurisdiction to the next, which muddies the waters for transporters."

One thing is clear, however. Every invoice should be scrutinized and every authorizing statute questioned to avoid paying more than the law requires.

As part of its service to transportation companies, the Spill Center screens invoices from emergency response agencies. The center is looking for questionable line items and unreasonable or unauthorized charges on invoices. Here are some of the most common problems encountered by the group:

* Incomplete documentation. A $1,200 charge for cleaning turnout gear is included on the invoice, but the fire department is unable to produce a paid bill from a cleaning or decontamination service. Ask to see receipts. If you're charged for 150 man-hours, ask to see work logs showing time on/off or details of work performed.

* Unreasonable scope of work. Half a dozen fire departments respond to a minor fuel spill and each one invoices you for emergency services. That's beyond the scope of a reasonable response. Also common are charges for damaged Level A (vapor protective) suits in incidents that do not call for the use of Level A. Ask for details of the incident and the services rendered.

* Unauthorized charges. Line items not directly arising from the loss are commonly included on invoices and may not be reimbursable, such as a labor charge with a pro-rated benefits cost or an administrative overhead charge, such as the cost of typing the report.

* Math errors. Never assume the math is correct. Math errors on invoices constitute the third most common problem encountered.

* No legal authority. Not all emergency responders are authorized to seek reimbursement. Ask for a copy of the emergency services reimbursement ordinance or statute. Refusal to submit it usually means the department does not have authorization. It could also mean they are charging the spill generator under a mutual aid law that only entitles them to seek reimbursement from the municipality where the incident occurred. The bottom line in such cases? The spill generator doesn't have to pay.

The Spill Center provides round-the-clock support to subscribers after incidents involving diesel-fuel spills and accidental releases of other hazardous materials. You can reach them by phone, 800-847-0959; by e-mail, spillcenter@spillcenter.com; and on the Web, www.spillcenter.com.