Curtis Tate | McClatchy Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON Some information about large crude oil shipments by rail is becoming publicly available, in spite of industry efforts to keep those details confidential, since the federal government ordered railroads to begin sharing it with state and local officials.
Washington state gave its railroads, including BNSF, the largest hauler of crude oil by rail in North America, until Tuesday to seek a court order to block the release of the information. The data were requested by McClatchy and other news organizations under the state open records law.
On Tuesday, Washington was to release the information.
Other states, including California and Idaho, continue to review the information to determine what they’re legally allowed to make public.
Virginia, which originally sided with the railroads, last week reversed itself after seeking guidance from the state attorney general. The state Department of Emergency Management posted the information on its website.
Several derailments of trains carrying crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken region in the past year have raised concerns in cities and states across the continent. The spilled oil ignited massive fires in Quebec, Alabama, North Dakota and Virginia, often surprising local mayors, fire chiefs and police chiefs who were never told about the shipments.
After an April 30 derailment of a CSX crude oil train in Lynchburg, Va., the U.S. Department of Transportation gave the industry 30 days to begin providing basic details about the shipments, including routing, frequency and volume, to emergency responders.
However, the railroads insisted that states limit public release of the information, calling it security sensitive, and asked them to sign nondisclosure agreements. But neither the Transportation Department nor the railroads could identify a specific legal justification for keeping the information secret. A letter from BNSF to the California Office of Emergency Services cited “homeland security regulations” but didn’t elaborate.
Stephen Flynn, a transportation security expert at Northeastern University, said in an interview that he did not believe the documents released this week contained security-sensitive information. At least some of the information that’s been shared by the states was already available from other sources, including the railroads themselves.
Tacoma, Wash., for example, receives three trains of Bakken crude oil a week, each with 90 to 120 tank cars, according to a document released by state officials on Monday. It does not reveal what days or what times the cargo arrives, nor the route it takes.
A map on BNSF’s own website, though, identifies Tacoma as a destination for crude oil.
Florida also receives three trains of Bakken crude weekly. A smaller railroad, Alabama & Gulf Coast Railway, hauls the trains to a terminal in Walnut Hill in the state’s panhandle. A document released by the state division of emergency management shows that the shipments originate on BNSF in North Dakota.
Walnut Hill is also on the BNSF terminal map.
Underscoring the need to provide the information to emergency responders, one of the trains that was bound for Florida derailed last November near Aliceville, Ala. Though no one was killed or injured, the accident spilled hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude and ignited a fire that could be seen for miles.