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.

Fed ruling could lift the secrecy from oil train shipments

Posted by: James Eli Shiffer Updated: July 1, 2014 - 12:19 PM

For years, the government has allowed railroads that ship hazardous materials, such as North Dakota oil, to shield the details of their shipments from the public. The secrecy could thwart saboteurs, the logic went, but as I wrote in May, it also leaves communities largely in the dark about the hazards rolling through every day. 

Prodded by the recent oil train derailments in Canada and the United States, the U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Railroad Administration issued a statement June 18 that could lift the veil on that information. The agency said its May 7 "emergency order" requiring more information-sharing by railroads with emergency responders meant that the records were no longer considered "security-sensitive." They could, however, still be considered "confidential business information" under state law.

"We encourage the railroads to work with states to find the most appropriate means for sharing this information, including Fusion Centers or other mechanisms that may have established confidentiality protocols," the agency's statement continued. "However, the [emergency order] and DOT’s subsequent guidance do not require that states sign confidentiality agreements to receive this information."

Last week, the Associated Press obtained records from the state of Washington to report that up to 19 oil trains reached that state from the Midwest each week. The story noted that while Washington complied with its record requests, Minnesota, California, New Jersey, Colorado and possibly other states "have agreed to requests from BNSF, CSX and Union Pacific to keep the information confidential."

I will check back with Minnesota emergency officials to see whether the federal statement changes its view on public access to oil train data.

Above: Placard on an oil tank car in North Dakota, 2013/Associated Press file photo by Matthew Brown

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