Two major railroad companies have complained about a recent federal order that requires them to disclose information concerning the large amounts of oil transported across the country by tanker car. The rules, which are meant to go into effect today, require railroad companies across the country to notify state officials about the volume, frequency and routes of trains carrying oil.
The emergency order was handed down by U.S. Department of Transportation officials last month and has so far been met with resistance in at least one state. The Washington Emergency Response Commission has revealed that BNSF Railway and Union Pacific Railroad both asked state officials to sign a confidentiality agreement before they would agree to disclose the required information.
State officials say that after the two railroad companies presented the confidentiality agreement they sought out advice on whether signing such an agreement would be legal. The state had already announced plans to post the information online so that the public could be informed about the amount of oil moving throughout the state. State legal experts said that the confidentiality agreements violate the state’s public-records laws, which require the state to release information openly if requested.
According to BNSF and Union Pacific, the information contained in the disclosure is security sensitive and ought to be deemed confidential. Rather than openly alerting the public to information about oil transportation, the railroad companies say that people should only be given access to the information on a “need to know” basis. As far as the railroad companies are concerned, only first responders and emergency planning agencies should be allowed access to the information.
Critics have come out and complained about the attempt to shield the information from public view. In Washington, oil shipments have ballooned in recent years, a trend experienced in many other parts of the country. Data shows that the amount of crude oil shipments in Washington State jumped from zero in 2011 to more than 17 million barrels by 2013, an astonishing rise that presents serious logistical and safety concerns.
Given the increase in deadly or dangerous derailments of oil-carrying trains, it’s no wonder that state officials and members of the public would want to know what’s going on in their backyards. Incidents like the one in Canada that killed 47 innocent people and several other explosive derailments in the United States have many people on edge regarding the impact that the boom in oil transportation by rail has had on the country. Rather than try and hide information from concerned citizens, railroad companies should be freely disclosing something that impacts us all. The hope is that officials across the country similarly reject such confidentiality agreements when the public has a right to know.
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