As crude oil shipments have proliferated and raised safety concerns across the country, railroads have refused to acknowledge their routes and frequencies, details that anyone patient enough to stand trackside could learn.
Railroads companies have claimed that they’re prohibited by federal law from divulging those details for national security reasons.
But they’re not.
Oil trains are big and obtrusive. They’re a mile long or more. They haul more than 100 tank cars, labeled on all four sides with placards that identify what’s inside. They’re moving in the open in growing numbers through Portland, Vancouver and other Northwest cities.
And while they carry flammable, dangerous oil — five oil train derailments created sky-high fireballs since last July, the worst killing 47 people in Quebec — no accidents have been caused by terrorism.
Asked about where oil trains go, companies including Union Pacific and BNSF Railway Co. have said federal law classifies crude oil as “sensitive security information,” information that’s not classified but not public, part of a post-Sept. 11 security push.
Those rules limit public disclosures of a narrow set of risky commodities including poisonous gases, radioactive material and explosives like dynamite.
Crude oil isn’t classified as a sensitive security commodity, a U.S. Department of Transportation spokesman, Michael England, confirmed.
Union Pacific representatives, meeting recently with The Oregonian’s editorial board, claimed it was, saying they were legally prohibited from publicly sharing information about oil train routing, volumes or schedules.
“There’s terrorist issues, identifying what’s a train carrying that people could do something to,” said Scott Moore, a Union Pacific spokesman. “Right or wrong, that’s one of the ways we think we’ve helped deliver things securely is people don’t always know what’s going on. We’re not going to tell him or her when and where.”
The claim has had legs. The Oregon Department of Transportation cited public safety risks in March when it unsuccessfully fought The Oregonian’s efforts to make the state’s oil train routes public. The agency was later overturned by Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum’s office.
Some aspects of moving hazardous materials are considered restricted: Vulnerability assessments, the names of railroad security employees, security plans.
In practice, Union Pacific has talked about some oil train routes, relying on national security claims when the company didn’t want to comment.
In late April, when a hiker photographed a mile-long crude oil train moving on Oregon’s side of the Columbia River Gorge, Union Pacific acknowledged the train was moving oil. The company, which had previously said it wasn’t moving mile-long oil trains through the gorge, said it was the first to ply the Oregon side.
Shortly after, a reader of The Oregonian said he thought he saw an oil train on the Oregon side of the gorge weeks before. The reader, Daniel Highkin, said he was taking his kids on a spring break trip March 22 when he spotted a train hauling at least 50 to 60 black tank cars through the gorge, a month earlier than the railroad said they moved.
If true, the report would undercut Union Pacific’s claim. But the company wouldn’t discuss it. “For competitive and national security reasons, we do not disclose to the general public details regarding train movements,” a Union Pacific spokesman said.
In a subsequent statement, the company said its interpretation of federal law was “conservative” and that it was evaluating whether the information ordered to be disclosed by the U.S. Department of Transportation “should be released without restriction, or whether its release is subject to legal protections that prohibit further unrestricted disclosure.”
BNSF has also refused to talk about specific oil train routes. When the Washington state legislature pushed a bill earlier this year to increase oil train disclosure, BNSF opposed it, telling lawmakers that national security was an important consideration. A BNSF spokeswoman reemphasized that point.
“Although BNSF does not publicly release this data, it does and will continue to share pertinent information with emergency planners and responders,” BNSF spokeswoman Courtney Wallace said.
State Rep. Jessyn Farrell, a Washington Democrat who sponsored the disclosure bill there, said she found it disingenuous that railroads refused to talk about oil routes when the location of ships moving oil on waterways are disclosed in real time and available online.
“We know there are safety risks,” Farrell said of oil trains. “But I don’t think it’s the risks they’re saying.”
Michael Eyer, a former Oregon rail safety inspector, said the railroads’ tendency toward secrecy was institutional. “Part of it is that we’re the railroad and we run on private property and that’s the way we’ve done things,” he said.
Eyer said crude oil trains are too prominent to move surreptitiously.
“There’s no reason to keep this material secret,” he said. “You try and hide a mile-and-a-half long train. It’s really an odd argument.”
The federal government recently moved to increase transparency, issuing an emergency order May 7 calling oil trains an “imminent hazard” and directing railroads to tell first responders where crude moves so they can prepare for accidents.
Railroad companies moving oil from North Dakota now have 30 days to tell state officials where they haul crude, the volume and number of trains they expect to move weekly through each county.
Companies that refuse to provide the information will be prohibited from hauling large amounts of North Dakota crude. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, Oregon Democrats, are pushing for the restriction to apply to all crude, not just North Dakota oil.