James Eli Shiffer, the Star Tribune’s watchdog and data editor, digs into data and documents to uncover the news. Reach him at 612-673-4116, james.shiffer@startribune.com or follow him on Twitter at @jameselishiffer. Tell us what to investigate. Send your story tips to whistleblower@startribune.com.

Rail cars and hazardous cargo, and reader response

Posted by: James Eli Shiffer Updated: May 5, 2014 - 9:58 AM

My Sunday column (below, and linked here) focused on the secrecy surrounding shipments of dangerous cargo by rail, and contrasting that with the public information available about other chemical hazards. Some readers make a good point by saying that people can indeed find out the contents of individual tank cars by examining the federally-mandated placards on each one. One caller said there's an app for that, called the Cargo Decoder.

Those are clearly designed to help first responders know what they're encountering when they arrive at the scene of an accident, as opposed to the kind of community disclosure and right-to-know information I was talking about. But it's a good point. 

Meanwhile, in a letter last week to a federal agency considering new rules for rail cargo safety, the city of Chicago - home to 25 percent of the nation's rail traffic - has called for better information on those placards, so they do not require a lookup by first responders. The city also wants written spill response plans from shippers and "accurate real time information about the materials being shipped."  

Here's the column:

On a dead-end street in St. Paul, Susan Juaire runs a home day care with a scenic overlook of boxcars, locomotives and railroad tracks. Though she doesn’t like it, Juaire has gotten used to the constant noise of shipping containers being loaded between trucks and trains.

She can’t say the same thing about the long lines of tank cars that roll by daily, without stopping.

“It makes you wonder,” she said. “You never know totally what’s in there.”

Her husband, Barry, thinks they ought to have a way to find out. It doesn’t take much for a train to derail, he said. “If they’ve got something hazardous there that could blow up the whole neighborhood, I’d like to know that, and what safety precautions they have.”

Good luck with that.

Through public websites, the Juaires can learn about plenty of other potential hazards in their neighborhood. They can find out that Magellan Midstream’s petroleum pipeline runs through Roseville, and that Northern States Power’s natural gas pipeline roughly follows Rice Street. They can identify the exact locations of dozens of contamination sites, hazardous waste generators, tank farms and pollution permits, including BNSF Midway Hub’s state hazardous waste permit three blocks west and the city-owned underground petroleum storage tanks just across the tracks.

What they can’t know in any detail are the hazards rolling on tracks through the Midway every day. There are no websites listing the types and frequency of shipments, or even the top hazardous cargoes. Because terrorists might use that information, it’s classified under post 9/11 federal rules as “security sensitive,” available to emergency managers and firefighters, who must promise not to share it with anybody else.

In other words, when it comes to hazardous rail freight, the public just has to have faith.

Trust in freight rail safety evaporated in the smoking ruins of a Quebec town last year and the recent near-disaster in North Dakota. The nation got another reminder when an oil train derailed and caught fire last week in Lynchburg, Va. Public action on oil trains has focused on improving the design of rail cars so they can better withstand a catastrophic derailment.

The shroud of secrecy over the rail industry has not gotten nearly the attention.

Holly Arthur of the American Association of Railroads thinks that the shielding of information is a good thing: the “unpredictability” of shipments means “those who would do harm would not have an easy target.”

Fred Millar does not see it that way. Millar, an independent hazardous materials consultant based in Washington, worked on some of the first “right-to-know” laws back in the 1980s. Facilities that handled or released large amounts of dangerous chemicals now had to tell the public about it. Once neighbors could get the truth about the filth coming out of smokestacks and wastewater pipes, many industries took action on their own to reduce the pollution.

After the attacks of 9/11, the government sealed off huge categories of right-to-know records, for fear they would become a road map for terrorists. Citizens who want to be informed about local hazards were collateral damage.

“Americans tend to think they have a right to know what risk they’re exposed to,” Millar said. “If you don’t know what the risk is, how are you going to have an appropriate level of concern?”

One of the loudest voices for beefing up rail cargo safety, U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, thinks the post-9/11 secrecy went too far. Walz, a Democrat representing Minnesota’s First District, calls the railroads’ sharing of information with emergency managers “somewhat patchwork,” but he sees a new willingness in Washington to make that better. Walz agrees that the “public right to know is incredibly powerful,” but he’s not ready to say how much neighbors should be informed about hazardous cargo.

I decided to ask the railroads directly about what’s coming through the Juaires’ neighborhood. Steven Forsberg, a spokesman for BNSF, said that “while we can and do provide such information to emergency response, emergency management and elected officials, we are not allowed to provide that same information to you.”

Ed Greenberg, a spokesman for Canadian Pacific, said he was sorry, but the railroad had to follow the federal protocol.

Kevin Reed communicated with railroads when he was a fire chief in the western Twin Cities suburbs. Now director of the state’s homeland security and operations branch, Reed works with emergency managers to improve the information sharing about trains and hazardous cargo.

When I asked him why regular people could not have that information, Reed said: “It comes down to a difference between need-to-know and want-to-know.”

With every black cloud billowing from the tracks, it’s getting harder to see that difference.

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