Part of the federal government’s justification for keeping details about oil trains secret is literally hiding in the weeds on the South Dakota prairie.
Itself hidden on page 255 of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s 395-page final rule on trains carrying large volumes of flammable liquids, the example is sure to raise additional questions about the government’s decision to shield routing and volume details on oil trains from public view.
Such details have been publicly available for the past year, at least about weekly shipments of 1 million gallons or more of Bakken crude oil. But rail and oil companies have been adamant that the government drop the disclosure requirement it imposed last May, citing concerns about security and business confidentiality.
In its rule, the department cited an investigation by the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives into an act of vandalism reported last December in Vivian, S.D.
According to investigators, a two-foot section of rail on the state-owned Dakota Southern Railway was blown out with tannerite, an explosive used in target practice that can be purchased at sporting goods stores.
In its rule, the department notes that “widespread access to security sensitive information could be used for criminal purposes when it comes to crude oil by rail transportation.”
But not only is the track through Vivian not used for oil trains, it hasn’t been used by any train for years.
Publicly searchable photos show that the rail line is clearly out of service, its rusting rails barely visible, if at all, under prairie grass. Several road crossings along the route have been paved over, including the one where U.S. Highway 83 crosses the track in Vivian.
Officials didn’t even notice the missing piece of rail for weeks.
South Dakota bought the nearly 300-mile rail line connecting Mitchell and Rapid City from the bankrupt Milwaukee Road in the early 1980s to preserve train service for grain-producing communities.
While part of the eastern end of the line has come back to life in recent years, thanks to federal and state investment, the western half, including the track that runs through Vivian, has mostly been out of service.
McClatchy received partial or full reports on Bakken oil trains from 24 states last year through their open records laws. South Dakota was one of those states, and the Dakota Southern Railway was not labeled as an oil train route.