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Workers inspect railroad tank cars damaged in a derailment near Alma, Wis., on Nov. 8, 2015. (Image courtesy of the U.S. EPA)
Workers inspect railroad tank cars damaged in a derailment near Alma, Wis., on Nov. 8, 2015. (Image courtesy of the U.S. EPA)

States, feds keep train-derailment reports from public

Information that state and federal government agencies collect about train derailments, particularly those that cause crude-oil spills, is hard to find.

Huge amounts of data about collisions, derailments and other accidents that happen along railroads in the United States are collected every year.

Some of it is compiled by the industry and distributed directly to the public upon request. But some is buried in databases that government officials are slow to release, if at all.

For example, the U.S. Department of Transportation requires railroads to submit annual reports to state emergency-response officials estimating how many trains carrying crude oil from the Bakken shale region pass through each county.

Yet in many states, the public is not allowed to see those reports.

A request by The Dispatch to see reports for Ohio went unanswered for months.

When the request was answered, only reports from two of three railroads that move crude oil from the Bakken oil fields were provided by the State Emergency Response Commission. The third was supplied only after The Dispatch pointed out the discrepancy.

In some instances, railroads have sued to try to keep reports secret. Some states allow the public to review only limited information from those reports.

Related: Derailments more dangerous, but no increase in inspectors

In Illinois, for example, the state emergency-response commission provided to The Dispatch railroad reports that included the number of crude-oil trains traveling through each county but redacted the specific rail lines.

In the report West Virginia officials released, counties where crude oil moves by rail were blacked out, as were specific rail lines, and amounts of crude oil hauled. Melissa Cross, coordinator of West Virginia’s State Emergency Response Commission, said the state lets the railroad decide what information should be made public.

“That is what the CSX determines to be proprietary and confidential information, and it is our policy that we do not release confidential and proprietary information,” Cross said.

She said firefighters and other first responders have access to the full reports on a secure website.

The Federal Railroad Administration collects information about every incident that happens on rail lines in the United States, and provides some of it on its website, including initial reports that rely on railroad-company investigations.

The agency also investigates incidents on its own and files reports in a database it maintains. Getting information from that database is more difficult.

For example, The Dispatch filed a request for data under the Freedom of Information Act in July. It has gone unanswered.

Some of the agency’s final reports are posted online, but the list is incomplete. In some cases, they link to blank pages.

The National Transportation Safety Board, an independent federal agency, investigates the most serious transportation incidents that involve airplanes, trains, cars and trucks. Their investigations often take years to complete.

For example, the board’s final report on a July 2012 ethanol train derailment in Columbus was released on Sept. 14, 2014.

Final reports reveal that what railroads initially tell the Federal Railroad Administration doesn’t always hold up in an investigation. Many underestimate damages and list causes that are later changed.

 

This article was written by Laura Arenschield & Rick Rouan from The Columbus Dispatch and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.