Should shipments of oil by rail be kept secret from the public?

Seattle Post-Intelligencer | June 4, 2014 | Column by Joel Connelly

The nation’s railroads were told last week by the U.S. Department of Transportation that they must notify state emergency management officials about the volume, frequency and county-by-county routes used in cross country shipment of volatile North Dakota crude oil.

Several CSX tanker cars carrying crude oil erupt in  flames after derailing in downtown Lynchburg, Va., on April 30.  It was the latest in a series of oil train accidents.  Nobody was killed, but much of downtown Lynchburg was evacuated.  (AP Photo/City of Lynchburg, LuAnn Hunt)

But a hitch has developed in Washington, where refineries at Anacortes and Cherry Point north of Bellingham are increasingly relying on oil by rail.

In its order, the Department of Transportation, siding with the railroads, said the information ought to be kept secret from the public.

The DOT told state emergency preparedness agencies to “treat this data as confidential, providing it only to those with a need to know and with the understanding that recipients of the data will continue to treat it as confidential.”

The BNSF and Union Pacific Railroads have sent the state drafts of confidentiality agreements that would restrict access to what the shippers call “security sensitive information.”

On Wednesday, however, spokesman Mark Stewart of state Emergency Response Commission told the Associated Press that the railroads’ request conflicts with one of Washington pioneering open government laws.

The confidentiality agreements “require us to withhold the information in a manner that’s not consistent with the Public Records Act,” Stewart told the AP.

The US DOT order came in the wake of a series of oil train fires, most recently train cars catching fire in Lynchburg, Virginia and dumping “product” into the James River.

This follows a deadly runaway train explosion last year that leveled the downtown of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, and killed 47 people, as well as an explosion and fire near Casselton, North Dakota.

Lawmakers, notably Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, have pressed the Transportation Department to speed implementation of new safety rules that would require phaseout of 1960′s-vintage, explosion vulnerable DOT 111 tank cars.

The Tesoro Refinery in Anacortes accepted its first trainload of oil in September of 2012. The shipments have soared, with 17 million barrels of oil coming into the state by rail in 2013.  Trains carry as many as 50,000 barrels of crude oil to the Tesoro refinery.

And Tesoro wants to build a $100 million rail-to-barge terminal in the Port of Vancouver on the Columbia River. It would be the largest such terminal in the Northwest, capable of receiving 380,000 barrels of oil a day. The Vancouver City Council voted earlier this week to oppose the project.

Shell Anacortes is in the process of creating a facility that would take 100-car oil trains.  The BP Refinery at Cherry Point is also receiving oil by rail.

All told, according to a Sightline Institute study, 11 refineries and ports in Washington and Oregon are either receiving oil by rail, or have projects underway to receive rail shipments of oil.

The shipments head by rail through cities in both Eastern and Western Washington.

The railroads have been highly secretive about their operations.  They are regulated by the federal government under the Interstate Commerce Act, leaving cities and local governments with almost no rights to request information or limit operations.

The BNSF has promised to purchase 5,000 newer, safer tank cars, and Tesoro has pledged to phase out use of the DOT-111 cars this year.

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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.