Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Department of Transportation still requires oil train disclosures, but requirements vary by state

The Department of Transportation said May 1 it would phase out the temporary rules requiring public disclosure of information about trains transporting crude oil, but now the rules will remain in effect, Jacob Donnelly reports for Reporters Committee.

Media outlets have been reporting about how often trains carrying large volumes of crude oil travel through particular areas and have been questioning states' rail safety. The number of oil train spills has increased from an average of 25 each year from 1975 to 2012 to 141 in 2014. Railroads had been trying to convince the Department of Transportation to get rid of the rules, but it reinstated the rules after eight senators sent a letter to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

"That was largely in response to emergency responders and their concerns about not having information," said Mollio Matteson, a senior scientist for the Center for Biological Diversity. Although the Federal Railroad Administration wrote that it "finds no basis to conclude that the public discloser of the information is detrimental to transportation safety," national security rhetoric has been used to prevent the public from accessing all the information, Donnelly reports.

Once the temporary rules were issues on May 7, 2014, the Department of Transportation requested that states sign confidentiality agreements "not to disclose the information its state emergency response commissions obtain from the railroads," Donnelly writes. "This data is intended for persons with need-to-know," the department wrote. "DOT expects the SERCs to treat this data as confidential. . . . Accordingly, railroads may require confidentiality agreements prior to providing this information."

Not all of the states were in agreement. Oklahoma, Delaware, Louisiana, New Jersey and California agreed to sign, but Wisconsin, Montana, Illinois, North Dakota, Idaho and Washington have refused to sign, some citing freedom of information laws as the reason.

The National Transportation Safety Board highlighted benefits of informing the public. "Having an informed public along rail routes could supplement a carrier's safety measures and help reduce the consequences of emergencies involving hazardous materials," the NTSB wrote in September. "Classifying routing information about hazardous materials as 'security sensitive' would unreasonably restrict the public's access to information that is important to its safety." (Read more)

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