On oil trains, state fights for public’s right to know

The OlympianJuly 3, 2014 

Oil Trains-Emergency Order

In this 2013, file photo, a BNSF Railway train hauls crude oil near Wolf Point, Mont. Montana officials intend to release details next week on oil trains passing through the state despite efforts by railroads to keep the information from the public.

MATT BROWN — AP

Kudos to the state Emergency Response Commission for defending the public’s right to know about trains carrying highly flammable crude oil passing through Washington. Our state is one of those that rebuffed the railroads’ attempt to hide this information.

After a number of tragic accidents involving the light oil from the Bakken regions of North Dakota, Montana and parts of Canada, the federal Department of Transportation ordered railroads to notify state emergency management authorities when trains carry more than 35 tank cars of the volatile oil.

But the railroads balked and sought non-disclosure agreements from state governments. They claimed the information was “security sensitive,” and threatened to seek court injunctions to keep their oil shipment information a secret.

We often criticize state of Washington officials for reluctance toward open government policies, but in this case the ERC of the state Emergency Management Division – comprised of representatives from private industry, state and local agencies – told the railroads to take a hike.

Not all states showed such moxie, and either gave in to the railroads’ demands or are still waffling.

Our state officials made the right decision. A national transportation security expert who reviewed the first oil shipment reports found the railroads’ concerns baseless. There is nothing security sensitive about them.

But with a meteoric rise from 10,000 carloads of oil moved by rail in 2008 to more than 400,000 carloads shipped in 2013, this information is critical to first responders. And restricting public documents violates our state’s Public Records Act.

According to the June 24 report from BNSF railroad, 14 trains loaded with the dangerous Bakken light crude passed through Thurston County between May 29 and June 4. Oil trains typically consist of 90 to 120 tanker cars, and each one holds about 28,000 gallons.

That number could increase dramatically if the state Department of Ecology permits a new crude oil shipping facility in Grays Harbor.

And citizens have good reason to feel nervous about dangerously flammable light crude oil rolling through the South Sound. More crude oil was spilled from railroad accidents in 2013 than the previous 40 years combined, according to a report from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

Shipping more oil via rail has produced tragic consequences. In two notable accidents, an oil train exploded in Alabama last November, creating a giant fireball that scorched surrounding rural lands. One year ago, an oil train derailed in the town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people.

State lawmakers provided some funds to the Department of Ecology to start on a statewide oil spill response plan, and Gov. Jay Inslee recently ordered state agencies to review the public safety risks of an oil spill.

The cleanup of a catastrophic spill in Puget Sound or along the rail lines passing through the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge could easily cost tens of millions of dollars.

But it’s a shame lawmakers didn’t apply to oil trains the 5-cent-per-barrel fee it charges on marine oil shipments. Railroads and oil companies should pay this bill, not taxpayers.

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