WASHINGTON – Two railroad industry trade groups have quietly asked the U.S. Department of Transportation to drop its requirement that rail carriers transporting large volumes of Bakken crude oil notify state emergency officials.
The railroads have maintained that they already provide communities with adequate information about hazardous materials shipments and that public release of the data could harm the industry from a security and business standpoint. But they haven’t been successful in convincing numerous states or the federal government.
On Friday, the Federal Railroad Administration published a notice in the Federal Register concluding that the Bakken train data isn’t sensitive on either a security or commercial basis, nor is it protected from disclosure by any federal law.
“At this time, DOT finds no basis to conclude that the public disclosure of the information is detrimental to transportation safety,” the notice said.
Bakken crude oil, from the Upper Great Plains, is extracted from shale rock through hydraulic fracturing, and it has been involved in multiple accidents that resulted in large spills and fires. A July 2013 derailment in Quebec killed 47 people.
Friday’s notice came in response to a letter Aug. 29 from the Association of American Railroads and the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association. The trade groups requested that the department withdraw its May 7 emergency order requiring railroads to notify states of cargoes of 1 million gallons or more of Bakken crude oil.
The DOT is seeking to make the order permanent. Initially, the railroads asked states to sign agreements that would exempt the information from open records laws, and many complied. Others refused, finding no reason the reports shouldn’t be shared publicly.
Copies of the notifications that McClatchy and other news organizations obtained from those states show the counties the shipments traverse, the names of the routes and the approximate number of trains per week that met the department’s reporting threshold.
The rail groups said the emergency order’s requirement to disclose routing information wasn’t necessary for emergency planning purposes.
“Notifying an emergency responder of the hazardous materials transported through the community, including crude oil, is sufficient,” their letter said.
In its response to the railroad associations, the DOT noted that its emergency order was mandatory, while the rail industry’s long-standing practice of sharing hazardous materials data was voluntary and only by request from local emergency responders that ask for it. It also noted that those voluntary notifications informed first responders only of the top 25 hazardous materials moving on trains through their communities.
“Large quantities of Bakken crude oil in single trains may or may not be part of this top-25 commodity ranking in any given community,” the department said.
Industry efforts to keep the information out of the public realm were set back Friday in Pennsylvania. The state open-records office reversed a July decision by the state emergency management agency to deny requests for the reports by McClatchy and two Pennsylvania newspapers. The agency has until Nov. 3 to produce the documents.
Norfolk Southern and CSX, which transport Bakken crude oil through Pennsylvania, haven’t said whether they plan to appeal the decision.
In July, both railroads sued the Maryland Department of the Environment to block the release of similar records to McClatchy and The Associated Press.