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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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    ‘Get them off rails now,’ Four US Senators say of some oil tank cars

    Repost from McClatchy News
    [Editor:  Thank you to co-sponsors of Sen. Cantwell’s bill: Senators Patty Murray of Washington, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Dianne Feinstein of California, all Democrats.  See also: the Cantwell press release (including a video), and the text of the legislation.  – RS]

    ‘Get them off rails now,’ Sen. Cantwell says of some oil tank cars

    By Curtis Tate, March 25, 2015
    US NEWS RAILSAFETY 3 MCT
    A DOT-111A tank car rolls past the Amtrak platform at Newark, Del., on July 28, 2013. CURTIS TATE — MCT

    WASHINGTON — Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., introduced legislation on Wednesday that would immediately ban the least sturdy tank cars from carrying crude oil after a series of recent fiery train derailments.

    The bill also would require the U.S. Department of Transportation to regulate the volatility of crude oil transported by rail, particularly oil extracted from shale formations in North Dakota’s Bakken region.

    Cantwell’s bill follows four recent derailments in West Virginia, Illinois and Ontario that have drawn new scrutiny to the large volumes of oil moving by rail across North America.

    The White House Office of Management and Budget is reviewing new regulations intended to address the safety concerns, but Cantwell told reporters Wednesday that the changes couldn’t wait.

    “We know that we need to move on this legislation now,” she said. “Derailments keep happening, and we need to take responsibility to ensure that our communities are safer.”

    Sens. Patty Murray of Washington, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Dianne Feinstein of California, all Democrats, are co-sponsoring Cantwell’s bill.

    In addition to addressing tank cars and volatility, the legislation also would increase penalties for rail and energy companies that don’t meet federal safety requirements.

    The bill would authorize funding to train emergency responders and require railroads to provide more information about oil shipments to state and local emergency officials. It also would require railroads to have comprehensive oil spill response plans.

    The measure aims to remove from crude oil service the kinds of tank cars that have proved vulnerable to punctures and fire exposure in a series of derailments over the past two years.

    Those include the older DOT-111 cars involved in a July 2013 derailment in Quebec that killed 47 people, as well as newer, industry-designed CPC-1232 cars involved in the most recent four derailments.

    All lack thermal insulation and outer jackets to better protect the cars in derailments, and Cantwell’s bill would require tank cars carrying oil have those features.

    “There are a bunch of tank cars that are unacceptable now,” she said. “So we’re saying get them off the rails, now.”

    Cantwell noted that the rail industry asked the Transportation Department for an improved tank car design four years ago and that her bill would help give the industry some certainty.

    “I’m willing to tell them right now: Here’s the standard that I think should be set,” she said.

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