Railroads inch toward transparency on oil shipments


On April 18, a wildflower photographer looking for blooming balsamroot on the Oregon slopes of the Columbia River Gorge happened to glance down and see dozens of black tankers barreling along the railroad below. The identification numbers on the tankers’ warning signs revealed that they were carrying crude. Yet despite tragic derailments in the past year that have killed scores of people, spilled oil into rivers and sent fireballs exploding 200 feet into the air, emergency responders and firefighters near the Columbia River Gorge were wholly unprepared for an accident: They had no idea that crude was even moving through the area.

The Oregon Department of Transportation knew crude was being shipped through the Gorge, but neither they nor Union Pacific had informed local communities. They’re not alone: Though the amount of oil being shipped by rail jumped 83 percent last year, railroad and state officials have largely refused to divulge when and where the practice is taking place, saying that federal law and concerns over national security prohibit them from doing so. “There's terrorist issues, identifying what's a train carrying that people could do something to,” a Union Pacific spokesman told The Oregonian.

Oregonian reporter Rob Davis didn’t buy it. After a months-long battle to obtain basic information about where oil trains were operating, Davis learned from federal officials in May that oil shipments don’t actually apply to the hazardous-commodities law that railroad and state officials had cited as the foundation for their secrecy. The Society of Environmental Journalists surmises that the real reason behind the lack of disclolsure is that railroads are “counting on people's fear and credulity to protect them from expense and accountability.” As a result, demands for transparency have increased.

A fireball from an oil train carrying North Dakota crude that killed 47 people when it derailed last July in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. Creative Commons photo by Steve Poulin/Agence QMI and Flickr user Public Herald.

This week, an emergency order issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation goes into effect, requiring railroads to notify state emergency responders of any railcar transporting more than 1 million gallons of North Dakota crude. In response, the country’s two largest railroads – Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) – have asked states to sign confidentiality agreements, ensuring that the information stays with emergency responders and doesn’t leak to the general public. They maintain that they’re acting in the interest of public safety.

According to the Associated Press, seven states – including Montana, North Dakota, Idaho and Washington – have refused to sign the agreements, saying they violate open-records laws. Four more states, including Colorado and Oregon, have attorneys reviewing the documents. On Friday, BSNF said it would comply with federal mandates, even in states where government officials have refused to sign the confidentiality agreements.

Yet other states, including California, have reportedly agreed to keep oil train information confidential. While it’s great that emergency responders there will know where and when oil trains are passing through, the confidentiality means information won’t trickle down to families wanting to buy a home near the tracks in Sacramento, for example. Nor will it help scientists collect baseline data in natural environments where oil trains pass through. It won’t help communities dealing with safety concerns related to planning and development, nor reporters trying to relay important information.

Plus, the feds only require disclosure of crude being shipped from North Dakota’s Bakken, perhaps because each of the four major explosions in the past year involved sweet light crude from the Bakken. A February report also found that Bakken crude was more than twice as volatile as many traditional crudes, meaning explosions are more likely. But the limits don’t sit well with Oregon’s two Democratic senators, both of whom want disclosure extended to non-Bakken oil shipments, including the Utah-drilled oil passing through the Columbia River Gorge. In California, less than 10 percent of crude shipped by rail is from North Dakota; the majority is from Canadian oil sands.

Given the major derailments in the past year – none of which were caused by terrorists – the threat of a terrorist taking over an oil train seems lower than the threat of such a train derailing in a community unprepared for the damage it could wreak. Plus, anyone armed with a smartphone and modicum of patience can watch a train go by and scan its red warning sign to determine whether it contains flammable oil. Why not make that information more readily available, so it doesn’t have to come from an amateur photographer out looking for wildflowers?

Krista Langlois is an editorial fellow at High Country News. She tweets @KristaLanglois2.