WASHINGTON, D.C. — A requirement from the U.S. Department of Transportation last month to limit the release of information about Bakken crude oil shipments by rail has set up a conflict between railroads, states and the federal government that could wind up in court.
DOT and the railroads want state agencies to keep the information confidential, but some states have not agreed to comply, citing their open records laws. Washington state is among the states that did not sign a nondisclosure agreement with railroads.
On Tuesday, McClatchy received a response to an open records request submitted to the Washington state Military Department on Monday. The state has given BNSF Railway until June 24 to seek a court order to block the release of information McClatchy requested about crude oil train frequency, volume and routing in state.
In an e-mail, BNSF spokeswoman Courtney Wallace declined to say how the railroad would respond.
An increase in crude oil shipments, and accidents, have drawn new scrutiny to an industry accustomed to operating out of public view.
It began almost a year ago when a crude oil train disaster in Quebec killed 47 people. Subsequent accidents in Alabama, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Virginia, though not fatal, underscored the lack of knowledge at the state and local level about the shipments.
After a 105-car CSX crude oil train derailed in downtown Lynchburg, Va., on April 30, the city’s mayor said he was not aware of such trains moving regularly through his community.
On May 7, DOT ordered railroads to provide states with information about Bakken crude oil shipments of 1 million gallons or more to help emergency responders. But the agency also requested that such information be kept confidential by the states, calling it “security sensitive.”
BNSF, the largest hauler of crude oil by rail in the nation, has taken steps to improve the safety of the shipments, including an unprecedented purchase of 5,000 new tank cars built to tougher standards than currently required by the industry or the federal government.
It also wants to limit the release of information about where it ships crude oil, including Washington state. However, some of that information is publicly available from an unlikely source: the railroad itself. An online map of BNSF crude oil facilities shows that it serves five in the Pacific Northwest, including four in Washington. Three more are under development.
The map also shows the routes the railroad has available to move the oil from North Dakota and other states to the West Coast, though it does not indicate which routes are used by specific trains. The trains are no secret to anyone who can see them — a mile-long train of tank cars is difficult to miss. It’s also reasonably easy to spot whether the cars bear the red hazmat placards with the code for crude oil.
Vancouver Action Network, a group of community activists, has been monitoring the passage of crude oil trains in multiple locations in Washington, including Vancouver, Everett and the Columbia River Gorge.
Matt Landon, a co-founder of the group and a Vancouver resident, said his group has established some fairly consistent patterns: The trains heading to the refineries use one route and the empty cars get sent back via another.
There’s at least one train every day.
Landon said his group posts its observations on Twitter so that neither emergency responders nor anyone else has to wait for notification from the railroad or the state.
“This allows the public to be involved in risk assessment,” he said.