Railroads give up attempts to keep crude oil shipment data secret


McClatchy Washington Bureau

The nation’s largest haulers of crude oil by rail on Tuesday appeared to abandon their insistence that information about such shipments could not be shared publicly for security reasons.

Meanwhile, states, including some that had previously signed nondisclosure agreements, also reversed course and made the information public with no protest from the railroads.

Courtney Wallace, a spokeswoman for BNSF, the largest hauler of crude oil by rail in North America, said Tuesday that the railroad received guidance from U.S. Department of Transportation that the information wasn’t protected.

“Once it became clear from the federal government that crude oil was not considered sensitive, secure information, we continued on our path of simply complying” with the department’s emergency order, she said in an email.

On Tuesday, Washington state released the information, which had been requested by McClatchy and other news organizations earlier this month under open records laws.

Weekly train counts in the state vary from five in Whatcom County in Northwest Washington to 19 in Klickitat County, along the Columbia River Gorge, according to numbers reported by BNSF.

Other states, including California and Idaho, continue to review the information to determine what they’re legally allowed to make public. But Idaho lies between the oil’s origin in North Dakota and its Washington destinations, so it’s likely that virtually all of the oil traverses the state.

Virginia, which originally sided with the railroads, switched sides last week after consulting with 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 across the continent. The spilled oil erupted in massive fireballs, often surprising local mayors, fire chiefs and police chiefs who were never told about the shipments.

Last year’s disaster in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killed 47 people and destroyed much of the town center.

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.

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.

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