Iowa plans to release information on hauling extra-flammable crude oil

Railroads hauling one million gallons or more required to report

(Cliff Jette/The Gazette-KCRG)
(Cliff Jette/The Gazette-KCRG)

Iowa officials plan to alert the public about trains carrying one million gallons or more of extra-flammable crude oil across the state — despite railroads’ argument the information should be kept secret.

Canadian Pacific Railway and BNSF Railway notified Iowa Homeland Security & Emergency Management earlier this month they are hauling trains through Iowa with one million gallons or more of crude oil from the Bakken region in North Dakota, Montana and Canada.

A third railroad, Union Pacific, reported hauling Bakken crude, but less than the threshold listed in a new reporting requirement from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

“The rail companies have to report it for 35 cars or one million gallons,” said Larry Smith, Washington County emergency manager. “I know they’re shipping it in Washington County, but I think it’s less than 35 cars.”

The crude oil in question comes from the Bakken formation, which covers about 200,000 square miles in North Dakota, Montana and Canada. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has caused a boom in recent years.

Oil companies are shipping much of the crude by rail, often using outdated tank cars called DOT-111s that are vulnerable to puncture in a derailment.

Since Bakken crude is more flammable than traditional crude oil, large shipments are considered high risk for communities along rail lines.

Forty-seven people were killed last July when an unattended 74-car freight train derailed in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. The train, carrying Bakken crude in DOT-111s, started fire and several tank cars exploded, destroying more than 30 buildings. The area was flooded with crude and other chemicals.

A train carrying crude nearly toppled a bridge in Philadelphia in January and another crude oil train derailed and caught fire April 30 in downtown Lynchburg, Va. That fire caused an evacuation of hundreds of people and spilled oil into the James River.

The U.S. DOT released an emergency order May 7 giving railroads 30 days to provide each state with county-specific estimates about the number of trains carrying a million gallons or more each week.

The companies were required to identify the routes and provide contact information for railroad employees responsible for the transport of Bakken crude.

BNSF asked Iowa officials to sign a non-disclosure agreement promising not to release the information to the public unless compelled by a judge. Canadian Pacific’s position is that by accepting the information, Iowa will provide it only to emergency responders.

Iowa Homeland Security officials told The Gazette on June 13 the Iowa Attorney General’s Office decided the railroad notifications should only go to emergency managers, who should keep it confidential.

Then, June 18, the Federal Railroad Administration said the information wasn’t “security sensitive” and the Iowa AG’s office decided to release the documents.

Iowa Homeland Security plans to make the county-specific notifications public on or after July 7, according to letters sent Monday to BNSF and Canadian Pacific. But first, they’ll give the railroads time to file an injunction to stop the process.

“HSEMD is delaying the release of the BNSF Railway Company Notice until at least July 7, 2014, so as to allow you the opportunity to obtain an injunction restraining the release of the information under Iowa Code Section 22.8,” states the letter signed by Mark Schouten, director of Homeland Security.

BNSF Spokesman Steven Forsberg said Tuesday the railroad would not seek an injunction in Iowa.

“BNSF does not intend to engage in an action regarding prospective handling of the information provided,” he said in an email. “The determination about how such information is controlled or communicated is ultimately a decision for the federal government and subsequently the State Emergency Response Commissions.”

He urged emergency responders to use discretion when releasing specific details.

Canadian Pacific hasn’t decided what to do yet. “CP continues to review the correspondence it received from Iowa Homeland Security,” Spokesman Ed Greenberg said.

Well over 90 percent of hazardous materials shipped by rail arrive safely, Tom Simpson, president of the Railway Supply Institute, a trade group that acts on behalf of suppliers to North American railroads, told The Gazette last month.

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