June 11, 2014

Oil-by-rail secrecy may lead to court dispute

Some states aren’t complying with requests for confidentiality.

A month-old requirement by the Transportation Department to limit information about Bakken crude oil shipments by rail has triggered a conflict among railroads, states and the federal government that could wind up in court.

The department and the railroads want state agencies to keep the information confidential, but some states have not agreed to comply, citing open-records laws.

On Tuesday, McClatchy Newspapers received a response to an open-records request submitted to Washington state Monday. The state has given Fort Worth-based BNSF Railway until June 24 to seek a court order to block the release of information about crude oil train frequency, volume and routing in the state.

In an email, BNSF spokeswoman Courtney Wallace declined to say how the railroad will respond.

An increase in crude oil shipments, and accidents, has drawn new scrutiny to an industry accustomed to operating out of public view.

It began almost a year ago when a crude oil train disaster in Quebec killed 47 people. Subsequent accidents in Alabama, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Virginia, though not fatal, underscored the lack of knowledge at the state and local level about the shipments.

After a 105-car CSX crude oil train derailed in downtown Lynchburg, Va., on April 30, the city’s mayor said he was not aware that such trains moved regularly through his community.

On May 7, the Transportation Department ordered railroads to provide states with information about Bakken crude oil shipments of 1 million gallons or more to help emergency responders. But it requested that such information be kept confidential by the states, calling it “security sensitive.”

BNSF, the nation’s largest hauler of crude oil by rail, wants to limit the release of information about where it ships crude. But such destinations are publicly available from the railroad itself. An online map of BNSF crude oil facilities shows that it serves five destinations in the Pacific Northwest. Three more are under development.

The map also shows the routes the railroad has available to move the oil from North Dakota and other states to the West Coast, though it does not indicate which routes are used by specific trains.

Vancouver Action Network, a group of community activists, has monitored the passage of crude oil trains in multiple locations in Washington, including Vancouver, Everett and the Columbia River Gorge.

Matt Landon, the group’s co-founder, said its train-spotting posts are relayed by Twitter so that neither emergency responders nor anyone else has to wait for notification from the railroad or the state.

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