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Maryland judge orders railroads to release oil train reports

Repost from McClatchyDC

Maryland judge orders release of oil train reports

HIGHLIGHTS
• Case marks first time railroads have lost on the issue in court
• Judge not persuaded that release would harm security, business
• Companies that filed 2014 lawsuit have until Sept. 4 to appeal

By Curtis Tate, August 17, 2015
Tank cars loaded with crude oil head east at Hurricane, W. Va., in May 2014. A Maryland judge has ordered the release of oil train reports to McClatchy and other news organizations. West Virginia and a handful of other states agreed to keep the the reports confidential.
Tank cars loaded with crude oil head east at Hurricane, W. Va., in May 2014. A Maryland judge has ordered the release of oil train reports to McClatchy and other news organizations. West Virginia and a handful of other states agreed to keep the reports confidential. Curtis Tate – McClatchy

WASHINGTON – A Maryland judge rejected two rail carriers’ arguments that oil train reports should be withheld from the public, ordering them released to McClatchy and other news organizations that sought them.

The ruling isn’t the first time railroads have lost their bid to keep the oil train reports secret, but it is the first court decision recognizing the public’s right to see them.

The U.S. Department of Transportation began requiring in May 2014 that railroads inform states of large shipments of crude oil after a series of derailments with spills, fires, explosions and evacuations. Since February, six more major oil train derailments have occurred in North America.

Nonetheless, some railroads have continued to press their case that the reports should be exempt from disclosure under state open records laws. Most states shared the documents anyway, and Pennsylvania and Texas did so after McClatchy appealed. Maryland is the only state that was taken to court after it said it would release the reports.

Norfolk Southern and CSX sued the Maryland Department of the Environment in July 2014 to stop the state agency from releasing the records to McClatchy and the Associated Press. They have until Sept. 4 to appeal the decision, issued Friday by Judge Lawrence Fletcher-Hill of the Circuit Court for Baltimore City.

Both companies, which transport crude oil to East Coast refineries concentrated in Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, said they would review the decision.

Dave Pidgeon, a spokesman for Norfolk Southern, said the company would “respond at the appropriate time and venue.”

Melanie Cost, a spokeswoman for CSX, said the railroad “remains committed to safely moving these and all other shipments on its network.”

The ruling isn’t the first time railroads have lost their bid to keep the oil train reports secret, but it is the first court decision recognizing the public’s right to access them.

In his 20-page opinion, Fletcher-Hill was not persuaded by arguments that releasing the oil train reports would harm the railroads’ security and business interests. He also dismissed the relevance of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s May final rule addressing the safety of oil trains. The companies had argued that the final rule supported their claims.

He also ordered the companies to pay any open court costs.

In a statement, Maryland Secretary of the Environment Ben Grumbles said the agency was pleased with the ruling and that it is “committed to transparency in government.”

Rail transportation of Bakken crude oil, produced through hydraulic fracturing of shale formations in North Dakota, has grown exponentially in the past five years. However, a series of fiery derailments, including one in Quebec in 2013 that killed 47 people, have raised numerous concerns about public safety, environmental protection and emergency planning and response.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx issued an emergency order on May 7, 2014, that required any railroad shipping 1 million gallons or more of Bakken crude oil through a state to inform that state’s emergency response commission what routes the trains would take and which counties they would cross, as well as provide a reasonable estimate of how many trains to expect in a week.

Beginning in June 2014, McClatchy submitted open records requests in 30 states for the oil train reports, including Maryland.

McClatchy was able to glean some of the details in the Maryland report through a Freedom of Information Act request to Amtrak, which owns part of Norfolk Southern’s oil train route in the state. The subsequent release of oil train reports in Pennsylvania revealed more about such operations in Maryland.

On Monday, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf released an 84-page assessment of oil train safety in the state, which examined derailment risk, tank car failures and regulatory oversight. Some Maryland lawmakers have called for the state to perform a similar assessment.

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    Amtrak provides crude oil train details states had withheld

    Repost from McClatchyDC
    [Editor: The author notes that this method of obtaining information on transport of crude by rail “only worked in the few places where Amtrak owns or controls track over which freight trains operate.”  – RS]

    Amtrak provides crude oil train details states had withheld

    By Curtis Tate, McClatchy Washington Bureau, August 4, 2014
    US NEWS RAILSAFETY MCT
    Empty tank cars roll south along Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor at Newark, Del., on July 28, 2013. The cars were unloaded at the nearby PBF refinery in Delaware City, Del., and are heading back to North Dakota for another shipment. (Curtis Tate/MCT)

    — Two loaded and two empty crude oil trains operate daily over Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor in Maryland and Delaware, according a document submitted by the passenger railroad in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

    Last month, Norfolk Southern, the freight railroad that operates the crude oil trains, went to court in Maryland to block the state Department of the Environment from making the same information available to McClatchy and the Associated Press.

    The Amtrak document also contains some details of Norfolk Southern’s crude oil train operations in Pennsylvania. That state last month denied requests from McClatchy and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to provide information about the shipments.

    Dave Pidgeon, a Norfolk Southern spokesman, declined to comment.

    In May, following a series of derailments, fires and spills involving crude oil trains, the U.S. Department of Transportation required railroads to notify states about train shipments of 1 million gallons or more of Bakken crude oil to help emergency responders better prepare for an incident.

    There is no federal law that shields the crude oil train information from public release. Nonetheless, railroads asked states to sign confidentiality agreements, and some states, including Maryland and Pennsylvania, complied.

    However, other states, including California, Washington, Illinois and Florida, did not sign the agreements and have made the crude oil train details available to McClatchy and other news organizations.

    In Maryland, according to documents filed on July 23 in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, state Attorney General Doug Gansler’s office had voided the confidentiality agreements that a state official had signed. However, both Norfolk Southern and rival carrier CSX contested the attorney general’s ruling and sought an injunction to prevent the imminent release of the records.

    Pennsylvania is one of the largest single destinations in the country for Bakken crude oil by train. On Monday, McClatchy appealed the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency’s denial of an open records request for crude oil train details there.

    Amtrak owns or controls lines in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware that Norfolk Southern uses for freight. The national passenger railroad is subject to the federal Freedom of Information Act.

    According to Amtrak, Norfolk Southern’s crude oil trains operate over 21 miles of the Northeast Corridor, the busiest passenger train route in the country. The crude oil trains travel between Perryville, Md., and Newark, Del., sometimes alongside Amtrak’s passenger trains. They also use a portion of a line east of Harrisburg, Pa., that Amtrak controls.

    The trains are generally 100 cars and weigh 13,500 tons loaded and 4,000 tons empty. By contrast, Amtrak’s flagship Acela Express trains include two locomotives and six cars, weighing a total of 624 tons.

    Freight trains commonly operate over the Northeast Corridor at night, but some run during the day. Amtrak restricts Norfolk Southern’s crude oil trains to 30 mph from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Overnight, the trains can operate at 50 mph.

    Norfolk Southern crude oil trains cannot exceed 135 cars on Amtrak lines.

    The Norfolk Southern trains supply the PBF Energy refinery in Delaware City, Del. The facility closed in 2009, only to be revived with rail deliveries of domestic crude oil.

    Read more here: http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2014/08/04/235391/amtrak-provides-crude-oil-train.html?sp=/99/200/#storylink=cpy

     

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