In Our View: Information Train

Union Pacific, BNSF call public access to data a safety risk; we call it some nerve

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We’ll give them this: They have chutzpah.

When it comes to discussions about a proposed oil-by-rail terminal at the Port of Vancouver, advocates have demonstrated a continual lack of regard for public concerns about the plan. Those concerns are widespread; more than 30,000 public comments were submitted to the state agency that will oversee the permitting process, and hundreds of people turned out for a Vancouver City Council meeting last week on the proposal.

And why not? The terminal would bring up to 16 million gallons of crude per day by rail up the Columbia River Gorge, through populated areas in Washougal, Camas and Vancouver, under the shadow of major freeways, and potentially within a stone’s throw of a billion-dollar waterfront development that is in the works. The railroad companies’ response? Well, they are seeking to limit public disclosure about the number and the nature of crude-bearing trains rolling through Washington communities. They are seeking to thumb their noses at valid and widespread public concerns.

Last month, the U.S. Department of Transportation ordered rail companies to notify state officials about the volume, frequency and county-by-county routes of trains carrying more than 1 million gallons of oil from the Bakken region of North Dakota. The idea is to allow state officials and emergency responders to better prepare for the eventuality of an oil spill or derailment. Considering that last year about 1.15 million gallons of crude was spilled from trains nationwide and that there have been several catastrophic derailments — and that Bakken crude is more volatile than typical crude — the order is crucial to public safety.

But BNSF Railway and Union Pacific Railroad have told the state that such information creates a security risk. BNSF spokeswoman Courtney Wallace said the information is “considered security sensitive and confidential, intended for people who have ‘a need to know’ for such information.” If potential terrorism is a concern, then let’s get it out in the open and formulate a way to deal with that potential. But the public has a right to know.

The action continues a pattern that has permeated the terminal process. Port of Vancouver officials approved the idea last summer, then discovered they possibly were in violation of public-meeting laws. Rather than seize the opportunity for a do-over and lend further diligence to the plan, they quickly rubberstamped the proposal again. Officials from Tesoro Corp., one of the companies that would profit from the terminal, repeatedly have trumpeted what they say is a strong safety record, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. And now railroad companies are attempting to limit the information the public receives regarding millions of gallons of crude traveling through the community.

Chutzpah? Webster’s defines it as “supreme self-confidence” or “nerve” or “gall.” And the entities trying to bring the oil terminal to Vancouver have demonstrated no shortage of it. They have demonstrated no shortage of willingness to work against the public rather than attempt to draw residents in by demonstrating the benefits of a partnership.

With this public-relations failure, those entities have damaged their cause. The state’s Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council is studying the proposal and will make a report to Gov. Jay Inslee, who will have the final say. While public opinion will play no official role in whether or not the terminal comes to Vancouver, proponents would be wise to do a little more courting and a little less stonewalling.