PORTLAND — The head of the state Department of Transportation has reversed his agency’s decision to quit collecting annual reports from railroads about shipments of crude oil in Oregon.
Transportation Director Matt Garrett’s decision came as Gov. John Kitzhaber called for better information about oil shipments, and it came in response to stories published by The Oregonian.
Garrett’s underlings had told the news organization the agency would no longer collect the information because it had been provided by the railroads as a courtesy, on the understanding that it wouldn’t be made public.
But in March, the state attorney general’s office said the documents should be released, and The Oregonian obtained the 2012 reports.
In April, when the news organization asked the department for the reports from 2013, officials told it that the agency had stopped collecting them because of the decision that they should be made public.
State law requires the annual reports on the movement of dangerous material. They are supposed to be sent to local emergency responders by March 1 each year.
But, The Oregonian reports, that doesn’t happen. Instead, the reports have been sent to the Department of Transportation, which has acted as a hub, providing information when local fire officials ask for it.
On Wednesday, Garrett sent a letter to his agency’s rail division ordering it to tell railroads to submit reports for 2013, a year in which oil train shipments increased 250 percent in Oregon.
“You have my commitment that if my agency engages in a manner that stands off or there’s an arrogance, I’m a phone call away, I want to know about it,” Garrett said in an interview with the Oregonian. “We’re better than that. We serve the public.”
Kitzhaber has organized a statewide oil-train briefing Tuesday in Portland and said he wants to see notifications improve.
Without criticizing the Department of Transportation by name, the governor said he expected all state agencies overseeing crude-oil transportation to “work at the highest standards possible to protect public safety and ensure information that is available be shared appropriately.”
Oil companies have turned to railroads to move some of the burgeoning output from wells in the center of the country that use hydraulic fracturing to get crude oil from shale formations. Some of the oil is being shipped to the Northwest for refining.
Oil from the prodigious boom centered in the North Dakota Bakken formation has proven especially volatile. After a series of explosive rail crashes, the federal government and the rail industry are working on replacing current railroad tanker cars, which are more prone to spills than state-of-the-art cars.
In its decision to require the reports to be released, the Oregon attorney general’s office said withholding them from the public “could infringe on the public’s ability to assess the local and statewide risks” of oil shipments.
Before Garrett’s directive, a Transportation Department spokeswoman, Shelley Snow, told the newspaper that if the department’s safety inspectors need information about hazardous materials trends, they can call the railroads and ask for it.
But Michael Eyer, a retired rail safety inspector for the agency, told The Oregonian he used the annual reports on the job to spot trends, see whether new hazardous materials were being shipped, and target his field inspections.