Economy

Crude oil train disclosures raise risk of attack, regulators told

A BNSF Railway crude oil train snakes through the West Bottoms of Kansas City, Mo., on Aug. 29, 2014. Documents released by the Missouri State Emergency Management Agency show that as many as 10 trains carrying more than 1 million gallons of crude oil pass through Kansas City every week. However, the documents do not reveal whether other types of crude oil from Colorado, Wyoming or western Canada, move through the region. (Curtis Tate/McClatchy)
A BNSF Railway crude oil train snakes through the West Bottoms of Kansas City, Mo., on Aug. 29, 2014. Documents released by the Missouri State Emergency Management Agency show that as many as 10 trains carrying more than 1 million gallons of crude oil pass through Kansas City every week. However, the documents do not reveal whether other types of crude oil from Colorado, Wyoming or western Canada, move through the region. (Curtis Tate/McClatchy) McClatchy

Information about rail shipments of crude oil should be kept secret because of potential threats from foreign terrorists and environmental extremists, two rail industry trade groups argued to federal regulators in an August document that was made public this week.

However, the comments did not appear to sway the U.S. Department of Transportation, which earlier this month said that the public release of such documents posed no meaningful security threat, nor did any federal law shield them from disclosure.

The Association of American Railroads and the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association wrote that the disclosure of the documents was “antithetical” to security concerns expressed by the FBI and the Transportation Security Administration.

“The public availability of this information elevates security risks by making it easier for someone intent on causing harm to target trains transporting crude oil,” the groups wrote.

However, neither FBI nor TSA could point to specific threats.

The TSA’s Office of Intelligence Analysis said in a March 31 note that media reports uncovered plans to attack freight trains overseas with magnetic improvised explosive devices. It added that it was “not aware of any plots involving the use of these devices within the homeland.”

In a July 18 private sector advisory, the FBI identified several “possible indicators of potential criminal activity by environmental extremists.”

They included “graffiti opposed to the use of trains,” “minor acts of vandalism,” “threatening telephone calls or emails to businesses or contractors associated with the oil industry” and the use of Twitter and Facebook to share information about crude oil trains.

Still, the FBI cautioned, “there is not specific information to indicate environmental extremists are planning (to) or will target railways used to transport crude or shale oil.”

Patti Goldman, a managing attorney for the Northwest regional office in Seattle of Earthjustice, an environmental group, called the railroads’ comments “outrageous.”

“We work within the law,” she said. “We don’t engage in civil disobedience.”

They rail industry groups had attempted to persuade the transportation department to drop its requirement that railroads notify state emergency management officials of large shipments of crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken shale region. The department imposed the requirement in May after a series of derailments, and seeks to make it permanent.

The railroads wanted states to keep the information confidential, but many states made the reports available through their open records laws. Others initially withheld the documents but reversed themselves when challenged by news organizations.

Last week, the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency released records on Bakken crude oil shipments across that state. The agency was ordered to do so by the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records.

McClatchy and two Pittsburgh newspapers had challenged the emergency management agency’s prior decision to withhold the documents. The agency had based its decision in part on the security rationale offered in lengthy affidavits filed by Norfolk Southern and CSX, the two railroads moving Bakken oil through the state.

The open records office rejected the railroads’ arguments, calling them “conclusory” and “self-serving.”

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