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Railroad Groups Urge Withdrawal of Emergency Rule on Oil Train Reporting

by Lisa Riordan Seville /  / Updated 

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Two railroad industry groups are asking the federal government to withdraw an emergency rule requiring their members to inform state emergency response agencies when trains carrying large amounts of highly flammable Bakken crude oil will pass through their jurisdictions.

The emergency rule, imposed by Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx on May 7, requires notification of authorities when trains carrying 1 million or more gallons -- about 35 tank cars full -- of Bakken crude oil will pass through their communities.

It followed a number of explosive derailments of oil trains in the U.S. and Canada, including one in July 2013 in Quebec that killed nearly 50 people. The U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Safety Administration said in January that crude obtained by hydraulic fracturing – or “fracking” -- from the Bakken field in the upper Great Plains may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude.

The Association of American Railroads (AAR) and American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association argued in an Aug. 29 letter to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) that the emergency rule is unnecessary, saying their members already provide information about the transport of hazardous materials to states. They also say the new rule also forces them to unnecessarily reveal confidential business and security information that should not be public.

“The nation’s railroads have been informing officials of what is being transported through their communities for years as part of the railroads’ commitment to preparedness and training,” said Ed Greenberg, a spokesman for the AAR. “ The rail industry believes the information, which reflects priority areas of security, safety and business, should remain with local, state and federal emergency responders.”

The Federal Railroad Administration, which is seeming to make the emergency rule permanent, rejected those arguments in a comment published in the Federal Register on Friday, saying the details about the trains’ routes and cargoes do not meet the definition of “security-sensitive nor commercially sensitive information that is protected by federal law.”

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The FRA also noted that under current regulations, railroads are only required to voluntarily report information on the transportation of hazardous substances such as Bakken crude to local emergency responders upon written request.

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Concerned citizens and environmental groups in a number of states also have been pushing to gain access to information about the oil trains running to and from North Dakota’s booming oil fields. Last week Pennsylvania's Office of Open Records ordered the state's emergency agency to make the information public in response to an open-records request by three news media outlets.

The federal Office of Management and Budget is expected to decide this fall whether to make the emergency rule permanent.

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