Crude oil shipper seeks secrecy

Times Union | June 9, 2014 | Column by Brian Nearing

CSX wants to keep routes confidential

Oil tankers in Kenwood Yard on Saturday, Aug. 10, 2013, in Albany, N.Y. (Cindy Schultz / Times Union)


A request by a rail company hauling Bakken crude oil that the state keep as secret newly required federal reports on traffic and routes likely would run afoul of the state's open records laws, according to the state's resident expert on the law Monday.

On Friday new federal rules from theTransportation Department went into effect requiring rail companies that carry one million gallons or more per train of Bakken crude to share the oil train routing and traffic information with state emergency officials, who would then make sure it was available to local police and fire departments.

One such company, CSX, wants the stateDivision of Homeland Security and EmergencyServices to sign a nondisclosure agreement promising never to release the information publicly out of security concerns over potential misuse.

"No state agency should sign a confidentiality agreement with a private party," said Robert Freeman, executive director of the Committee on Open Government, which is part of the stateDepartment of State. "We have learned and read a lot about crude oil trains recently. We should be doing everything as a government that advances the safety of the public, and not moving to shield information."

He said the Bakken crude train records — which include a weekly tally of crude trains and their routes by individual county — would be available publicly under the state's 36-year-old Freedom of Information Law. That law requires government agencies to make records available with specific exceptions, including ongoing law enforcement investigations, trade secrets, contract negotiations and invasions of personal privacy.

CSX's request for confidentiality is under review, said Peter Cutler, deputy commissioner of public affairs at Homeland Security and Emergency Services. "As part of the state's efforts to safeguard our communities from accidents involving the transport of crude oil, the state has been working with railroad companies to provide secured routing information to the appropriate state public safety officials," he added.

However, local opponents want the information made public.

"We think it is terrible that the state is even thinking about signing this," said Sandy Steubing, a member of People of Albany United for Safe Energy, which opposes the crude trains. "It is stupid, when anyone can look out the window and count the trains, and read the materials placards."

She said if the state tries to keep the crude train information secret, it means "the state is not protecting us and wants to keep their lack of protection secret."

CSX spokesman Rob Doolittle said the company is asking all states to sign such agreements, and states that do not sign will not receive the information.

The federal rule imposes fines of up to $175,000 a day on railroads that do not supply reports to a state.

New York's other major rail carrier of Bakken crude, Canadian Pacific Railway, supplied its traffic and routing report to the state and did not seek a confidentiality agreement, said CP spokesman Ed Greenberg. However, he said the company assumes the state will hold the report as confidential because of policy from the federal DOT, which is advising states to only release data to emergency responders.

Both CSX and CP haul oil from the Midwest and through New York and the Capital Region on the way to coastal refineries. Calls to Pan Am Southern — a joint venture between Pan Am and Norfolk Southern that carries crude on its line between the Capital Region and eastern Massachusetts — were not returned.

Some states along Bakken oil train routes, like Virginia, have signed confidentiality agreements, while some, like Washington State, have balked because of conflicts with state open records laws. Other states, like Minnesota and North Dakota, did not sign agreements but said they would not release the information except to emergency officials.

The federal DOT issued the emergency rules last month after finding Bakken crude train shipments were an "imminent hazard." That ruling came after a spate of derailments, explosions and fires in the U.S. and Canada. There have been four derailments in New York, with none resulting in fires or injuries.

In making its ruling, DOT found the number of accidents during the last year was "startling." The new federal rules also require the railroads to report to the state what kind of crude is being transported and to provide emergency response information. The companies are also required to help states provide traffic and routing information to emergency responders in every county where oil trains pass through.

[email protected] • 518-454-5094 • @Bnearing10

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PAUSE, People of Albany United for Safe Energy
PAUSE is a grassroots group of individuals who have come together to promote safe, sustainable energy and fight for environmental justice. We engage the greater public to stop the fossil fuel industry’s assault on the people of Albany and our environment.