Shipments of volatile materials have long been shrouded in secrecy, but a series of fiery – and sometimes deadly – derailments triggered a federal order for greater disclosure. However, BNSF Railway, Union Pacific and CSX, with an assist from the feds, are asking states to keep the information from the public.
California and other states may cooperate. Thankfully, Washington and Idaho won’t, saying secrecy would violate public records laws. Oregon hasn’t decided what to do.
The U.S. Department of Transportation issued the emergency federal order in May, shortly after three CSX rail cars carrying crude oil plunged into the James River at Lynchburg, Virginia. Unbeknownst to city leaders, at least one shipment of crude passed through the city each day.
In the past year, five major derailments have occurred in North America, the worst being the tragedy in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, that killed 47 people.
Under the federal order, railroad companies had until last Friday to report information to states about crude oil shipments of at least 1 million gallons – or about 35 cars – from the vast Bakken fields of North Dakota, Montana and Canada. Crude from that source has proven to be more volatile. Details requested include route details, volume and emergency response information.
The companies complied, but they also tried to persuade states to enter into nondisclosure agreements, according to the Associated Press. Unfortunately, the feds abetted this position by sending notice to the states that first responders could see the information, but that anyone else would be informed on a “need to know” basis.
Initially, Washington state’s Emergency Response Commission was going to immediately post the oil train information online, but now the state’s plan is to send the information to county emergency managers and require a public records request from others. If a request is made, the railroad companies are notified and given time to block it in court.
We’ll soon see how that plays out, because McClatchy News Service filed a records request on Monday. The state’s given BNSF until June 24 to respond. If necessary, we expect the attorney general’s office to fight hard for the public’s right to know.
The railroad companies say it’s important to keep shipment details of potentially dangerous materials secret, for fear of terrorist attacks. But long oil trains can’t be hidden. An activist group in Everett recently conducted a weeklong count and had no trouble spotting them.
It’s no secret that the number of oil trains has surged in recent years. The rail industry needs to demonstrate that it can safely handle the increased traffic and that it isn’t afraid of sharing information.
Secrecy doesn’t calm anyone; it just derails trust.