Public information concerns over oil shipments

In the wake of recent railway accidents involving crude oil shipments, the United States Department of Transportation issued an emergency order requiring railroad companies to notify state officials of specific route details and oil volume on trains shipping one million gallons or more of crude oil from the Bakken region. Initially, states were expected to treat the data as “confidential, providing it only to those with a need-to-know…” and as part of the ruling, BNSF and Union Pacific Railroads sent to the affected states a draft of a confidentiality agreement that would legally require states to limit the access to this “security sensitive” information. However, on June 18, 2014, US transportation authorities declared that details regarding oil shipments was not security sensitive, leaving it up to state governments to determine how to approach railroad company agreements.

While some states have agreed to the railroad companies’ requests (California, New Jersey, Virginia, Minnesota, and Colorado), others have raised concern that keeping the information confidential would violate existing state privacy laws. The state of Washington’s Emergency Response Commission consulted legal counsel and concluded that the agreement would force the state to withhold information in a way it found inconsistent with state’s public records act. The commission then presented an alternative to the companies, stating that while the information could be publicly disclosed, the state would inform the companies of any information request ten days prior to issuing said information. This would give the companies an opportunity to seek legal protections to prevent release of the information. Similarly, New York, North Dakota, and Wisconsin are still debating whether recognizing railroad company agreements would violate existing state laws.

In contrast, Montana announced to BNSF its plan to publicly release the contested train information later this month. In a letter to Montana state officials, BNSF Director of Hazardous Materials said, “We must be cognizant that there is a real potential for the criminal misuse of this data in a way that could cause harm to your community or other communities along the rail route.”

Safety of the oil shipments and the communities they pass through are a concern on both sides of the issue. In light of the recent disasters and the steady increase in shipments of this volatile crude, it’s sure to be an ongoing concern.

environmental dataEfrain Rodriguez
Research Analyst
Document Research Services

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