Public input missing from White House meetings on rail safety rules

06/19/2014 3:08 PM

06/22/2014 11:16 AM

As the White House reviews a package of proposed rail safety regulations, the rail, petroleum and chemical industries in recent weeks have held nearly a dozen meetings with Obama administration officials.

However, state and local governments; safety, health and environmental groups; and emergency responders, who are on the front lines of the issue, so far have not been at the table. Additionally, the meetings are shielded from public view. The White House only discloses the dates, times and participants.

“The details of the conversations are not public record,” said Ronald White, director for regulatory policy at the Center for Effective Government, a Washington watchdog group. “There’s a real lack of transparency there.”

A week after an April 30 crude oil train derailment and fire in Lynchburg, Va., the U.S. Department of Transportation sent its rail safety proposals to the White House Office of Management and Budget. Under federal law, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs must evaluate such proposals for their economic impact. Usually, the process can take months.

But there have been at least half a dozen major derailments of trains carrying crude oil since November, including the Lynchburg incident, and the White House has moved faster on the new rules. Its review could be finished as soon as next month, and the new rules could be in effect by year’s end.

OMB’s regulatory affairs office says anyone is welcome to request a meeting, including “state or local governments, small business or other business or industry interests, or from the environmental, health or safety communities.”

But the review process may put interested parties that do not have a big presence in Washington at a disadvantage.

“The lack of meetings from the public interest community,” White said, “is indicative of resource inequities that go on.”

The Office of Management and Budget declined to comment.

Industry officials and lawyers from top-shelf firms have met with regulators 11 times in the past month, according to a publicly searchable log. Industry participants included Matt Rose, executive chairman of BNSF, the nation’s leading hauler of crude oil by rail.

A separate one-on-one meeting took place between the railroad’s top lawyer, Roger Nober, and OMB’s regulatory administrator, Howard Shelanski.

“We and the industry continue to advocate our position to all policymakers in the rule-making procedure for tank cars,” said Roxanne Butler, a BNSF spokeswoman.

She said the railroad supports an “aggressive” phaseout of older models of tank cars prone to puncture.

Other meetings included representatives from other major railroads and the Association of American Railroads, the industry’s leading advocacy group in Washington. The American Petroleum Institute, the American Chemistry Council, the Renewable Fuels Association and major petrochemical companies such as Exxon also got a chance to make their case.

The records show that the Federal Railroad Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the agencies that write and enforce rail safety regulations, sent representatives to the meetings. A spokesman for the pipeline safety agency said those individuals attended as observers.

Phillip Musegaas, director of the Hudson River program for Riverkeeper, said his environmental group has had mixed results with the OMB’s regulatory affairs office in the past. Still, he plans to schedule a meeting with the agency even if his group is outmatched by industry.

“We have to make that same effort whether it will be successful or not,” he said.

Albany, N.Y., has become a major transfer hub for crude oil from trains to barges for delivery to East Coast destinations. Long strings of tank cars used in crude oil transportation are routinely parked only blocks from state government offices and residential neighborhoods.

“We live with this day in and day out,” said Daniel McCoy, executive of Albany County, who earlier this year called for a local moratorium on the expansion of local crude by rail facilities. “To make a decision without consulting anybody else is disturbing.”

McCoy has known about the potential risk in his community for a while. In contrast, the mayor of Lynchburg, Michael Gillette, only found out about the regular shipments of crude oil through his city after a 105-car train derailed. Three cars fell into the James River and one of them punctured, igniting a massive fire.

That particular tank car was built to a higher standard adopted voluntarily by the rail industry in late 2011, months after railroads petitioned the Department of Transportation for stronger tank cars. At that time, however, the concern was ethanol, not crude oil.

Then last July, a 72-car train of crude oil derailed in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. Massive explosions and fires leveled much of the town and killed 47 residents.

The Department of Transportation formally launched the rule-making process in September.

Karen Darch, village president of Barrington, Ill., a Chicago suburb, petitioned the department in 2012 for improved tank cars. But as the White House considers potentially those very standards, Darch said she’d like the chance to weigh in.

“Industry has its lobbyists who watch this process and are part of it more often,” she said. “Our vantage point is different.”

On Wednesday, Darch and another suburban Chicago mayor, Tom Weisner of Aurora, Ill., wrote Shelanski asking him to include in the agency’s review the cost to communities of catastrophic rail accidents.

Darch said she understands that industry has a “huge stake” in the outcome of the review. But, she added, so does the public.

“It’s a voice that’s missing in these additional discussions,” she said.

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