Economy

Held up in court for a year, Maryland oil train reports outdated

A Norfolk Southern crude oil train passes through Columbia, Pa., on March 22, 2014. A Maryland judge ordered oil train reports released to news organizations, but more than a year after the request. Now, the reports are out of date.
A Norfolk Southern crude oil train passes through Columbia, Pa., on March 22, 2014. A Maryland judge ordered oil train reports released to news organizations, but more than a year after the request. Now, the reports are out of date. McClatchy

After more than a year, McClatchy finally got the oil train reports it had requested from Maryland.

And they were badly out of date.

Last year, McClatchy filed open-records requests in about 30 states for the documents, and was the first news organization to do so in Maryland, in June 2014.

Maryland was poised to release the records in July 2014, when two railroads, CSX and Norfolk Southern, sued the state Department of the Environment to block the disclosure.

Finally last month, a state judge ruled in the favor of the release, marking the first time a court had affirmed what many other states had already done without getting sued.

The documents McClatchy and other news organizations ultimately received were dated June 2014, not long after the U.S. Department of Transportation began requiring the railroads to notify state officials of shipments of 1 million gallons or more of Bakken crude oil.

After more than a year, however, the economics of shipping crude by rail had changed substantially.

Amid a slump in oil prices, refineries once receiving multiple trainloads of North American crude oil every day have switched, at least temporarily, to waterborne foreign imports.

The trend is reflected from the East Coast to the West Coast, where long strings of surplus tank cars have been parked on lightly used rail lines, generating rental income for small railroads but also the ire of nearby residents.

The documents released in Maryland show that in June 2014, Norfolk Southern was moving as many as 16 oil trains a week through Cecil County on its way to a refinery in Delaware.

But McClatchy has known that since August 2014, when it received a response to a Freedom of Information Act request from Amtrak.

The Delaware News Journal reported that the PBF Refinery in Delaware City, Del., now receives only about 40,000 barrels a day of crude by rail. That’s about 56 loaded tank cars, or half a unit train, nowhere close to the volume of mid-2014.

The June 2014 Maryland documents also show that CSX was moving as many as five oil trains a week on a route from western Maryland through downtown Baltimore toward refineries in Philadelphia.

But that had been clear since at least October 2014, when the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency released its oil train reports showing an identical number of CSX trains crossing from western Pennsylvania into Maryland, then back into southeast Pennsylvania.

CSX told the Baltimore Sun that it had not regularly moved a loaded oil train through Baltimore since the third quarter of 2014. The company had earlier told the newspaper that it moved empty oil trains through the city and state.

Federal regulators never required railroads to report empty oil train movements.

The vast majority of loaded CSX oil trains move to Philadelphia via Cleveland, Buffalo, Albany, N.Y., and northern New Jersey, according to records from Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York.

Curtis Tate: 202-383-6018, @tatecurtis

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