Bakken rail information raises public safety questions


September 17th, 2014

Lincoln, NE – Almost every train carrying oil from the Bakken region of North Dakota arrives at its destination safely.

But when one doesn’t, it makes for bad news. Last year, Bakken trains exploded or caught fire in Casselton, North Dakota and Aliceville, Alabama. This spring, it was Lynchburg, Virginia. And last year in the town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, 47 people died in the fire and explosion after a train carrying Bakken crude derailed.

Both Canada and the United States have since toughened shipping requirements. And in June, the U.S. Department of Transportation started requiring railroads to tell states about trains with loads at or above one million gallons – about 35 tank cars — of Bakken crude.

States then decide if that information’s public. In Iowa, it is. Mark Schouten directs that state’s Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

“We felt obligated to release it to the public,” Schouten said. “We had a number of requests from media outlets that had requested release of the information. And ultimately we made the determination that it was a public record.”

Schouten said Iowa considered using an exception its public records law allows for information about critical infrastructure and key resources. But he said that was trumped by the presumption government records are public.

Not so in Nebraska, where the state has decided not to make information on Bakken oil shipments public.

Iowa and Missouri disclose Bakken shipments through highlighted counties. Nebraska does not disclose, but BNSF tracks through the state connect the Iowa and Missouri counties. (Graphic by Scott Beachler, NET)

Iowa and Missouri disclose Bakken shipments through highlighted counties. Nebraska does not disclose, but BNSF tracks through the state connect the Iowa and Missouri counties. (Graphic by Scott Beachler, NET)

“I think it all comes down to what’s the responsible thing to do to protect the public’s safety,” said Bryan Tuma, assistant director of the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency.

“If we can articulate and demonstrate there are some type of security issues associated with those shipments, then maybe we better keep a lid on some of that information.”

Tuma mentioned fringe environmentalists and terrorists as possible concerns. But he also acknowledged there are other ways to get information about the shipments.

“With the amount of disclosure that’s out there — the states that have elected to disclose information — somebody would probably be able to piece information together and have at least some picture of shipping routes,” he said.

The Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad told the State of Iowa it sends three trains of Bakken crude per week through counties in northwest Iowa including Woodbury County, right across a Missouri River railroad bridge from South Sioux City, Nebraska.

BNSF also told the State of Missouri it sends three Bakken crude trains per week through counties in northwest Missouri including Holt County, right across another Missouri River railroad bridge from Rulo, Nebraska.

Neither BNSF nor the State of Nebraska will say where in Nebraska Bakken crude is being shipped. But BNSF tracks do connect South Sioux City to Rulo via Lincoln, where they pass within a couple hundred yards of Memorial Stadium and the Pinnacle Bank Arena. Union Pacific, the other big railroad in Nebraska, said it does not currently move any Bakken crude oil in the state.

Even though Nebraska doesn’t make the railroad’s information public, it does inform local emergency managers, said Brian Dixon, emergency management director in Richardson County, Nebraska, where Rulo is located. But Dixon said he would like to know more than simply how many trains pass through.

“It would be nice to know how many rail cars, what quantity, and when they’re going to be coming through our communities prior to them actually coming through, so that we can possibly be more prepared proactively,” Dixon said.

But requiring railroads to provide more specific information might make states less likely to make it public, said Iowa’s Schouten.

“If suddenly that information were more detailed – if it becomes more specific, with schedules, times, places, numbers of cars – we certainly reserve the right to take a second look at the release of this information,” Schouten said.

Meanwhile, Tuma said Nebraska may decide to make the currently-required information public in the future.

“If there’s no credible threats, and we look at the laundry list of safety issues that the railroads are working with the federal government on, and we can say with some reasonable assuredness that safety and security are addressed, then I think we have to ask ourselves, ‘Then why are we withholding the information?” Tuma said.

Schouten said states and the federal government are still discussing issues like whether to require more specific information, and whether it should be made public.

“It’s a balancing act – the public’s right to know, which we think is very significant, vs. the public’s right to safety,” Schouten said.

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