Economy

New oil-train safety rules will put public back in the dark

Recently filled, a tanker truck drives past railway cars containing crude oil on railroad tracks in McClellan Park in North Highlands on Wednesday, March 19, 2014. North Highlands is a suburb just outside the city limits of Sacramento, Calif.
Recently filled, a tanker truck drives past railway cars containing crude oil on railroad tracks in McClellan Park in North Highlands on Wednesday, March 19, 2014. North Highlands is a suburb just outside the city limits of Sacramento, Calif. MCT

Details about rail shipments of crude oil and ethanol will be made exempt from public disclosure under new regulations announced by the U.S. Department of Transportation on Friday.

The department will end its requirement, put in place a year ago, that required railroads to share information about large volumes of Bakken crude oil with state officials.

Instead, railroads will share information directly with emergency responders, but it will be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act and state public records laws, the way other hazardous materials such as chlorine and anhydrous ammonia are currently protected.

After a CSX train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed and caught fire in Lynchburg, Va., on April 30 last year, federal regulators required railroads to notify emergency response agencies of shipments of 1 million gallons or more of Bakken crude oil through their states.

The railroads complied, but asked states to sign agreements to keep the information confidential. Some agreed, but most refused, citing a conflict with their open records laws.

Using FOIA and state public records laws, McClatchy last year obtained full or partial data on Bakken rail shipments from 24 states. Another five states denied McClatchy’s requests.

CSX and Norfolk Southern, the dominant eastern railroads, sued Maryland to block the state from releasing its information to McClatchy. A trial is scheduled for next month.

McClatchy, however, was able to obtain some of the information about the Maryland shipments by going to Amtrak. Norfolk Southern uses a portion of the passenger railroad’s Northeast Corridor for its crude oil trains.

Last fall, the rail industry’s leading trade groups quietly asked the Transportation Department to drop the requirement.

In pretrial documents in the Maryland lawsuit, the railroads’ lawyers maintain that disclosure of the information – including the routes the trains take and the counties through which they pass – could compromise security, erode the companies’ competitive edge and harm their customers.

As of October, the Federal Railroad Administration disagreed. It said that information about the Bakken shipments was neither security nor commercially sensitive and was not exempt from public release. It also said it would continue the reporting requirement.

But on page 242 of the 395-page final rule the department published on Friday, it appeared that the railroads got their wish.

Starting next year, emergency responders will have access to information about shipments of all types of crude oil, not just Bakken, ethanol and other flammable liquids. The volume threshold will also be lowered to 20 or more cars of flammable liquid in a continuous block, or 35 or more cars dispersed throughout a train.

The shipments, however, will be classified as “security sensitive” and details about them shielded from the public.

“Under this approach,” the regulation states, “the transportation of crude oil by rail can...avoid the negative security and business implications of widespread public disclosure of routing and volume data.”

Related stories from McClatchy DC

  Comments