Details about crude oil rail shipments shrouded in secrecy

Trains carrying a potentially more flammable crude oil have begun rolling with little notice through Sacramento and California in the last year, prompting concerns about safety and calls for more transparency, but state officials said Friday they have decided for now not to release information to the public on where those trains run or how many there are.

Kelly Huston, deputy director of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, said the decision to withhold such details from the public is not an easy one, given that some of the crude is a combustible oil from the Bakken fields of North Dakota, carried in tank cars that industry experts say are susceptible to puncture.

State officials said this week they have little information yet about Bakken and other shipments, and that until they get more details and a better understanding of the safety and security issues involved, they will follow federal advice to divulge information only to local firefighters and others who must respond if there is a hazardous spill or fire.

“We don’t want to be holding things secret unless it is absolutely necessary,” Huston said. “At this point, we are honoring the U.S. Department of Transportation request to provide Bakken crude rail shipment details only to public safety agencies in California.

“This is something we will be continually re-evaluating as we get additional information from the railroads in the coming weeks.”

Attorney Suma Peesapati of Earth Justice, one of several California groups pushing for a clearer picture of crude oil shipping, said the decision to withhold information is a blow to public safety. Her group is involved in a lawsuit against a Bay Area air-quality agency for failing to conduct an environmental analysis before giving a Richmond company permits to unload Bakken crude from trains last year.

“This is a huge public health and safety issue,” Peesapati said. “The public has the right to know what is going through their backyards. People are already in the dark. This adds insult to injury.”

Sacramento is likely to see considerably more crude rolling through on rail cars in the next few years. Valero Refining Co. has plans to ship 100 train cars of crude oil daily, some of it potentially Bakken, through downtown Sacramento and downtown Davis to its Benicia refinery. Phillips 66 has plans to ship up to 80 train cars of crude a day, much of it likely through Sacramento, to its Santa Maria refinery. Phillips officials say they do not plan to ship Bakken. Refineries in Kern County also are gearing up to receive more crude via train.

The industry’s new emphasis on rail shipments is the result of increased pumping in recent years of less-expensive crude in North Dakota and Canada, where access to oil pipelines is limited. Some of the North American oil will replace foreign oil that now arrives on ships. Federal officials issued a safety warning earlier this year noting that Bakken may be more combustible than typical crudes following several explosive derailments, including one in Canada a year ago that killed 47 people and leveled several blocks of a downtown.

Interim Sacramento Fire Chief Lloyd Ogan said state officials recently informed him that a least one Bakken rail shipment already passes through the city each month. He said the state offered no other details.

Ogan and other Sacramento-area officials have banded together to push for more information for local fire and hazardous-materials crews, and for more safety measures. California legislators have authored three bills in recent weeks seeking to require oil companies to disclose more information to fire officials, and to increase state funding for spill prevention and response.

‘Need-to-know’ basis

Reacting to similar concerns nationally, the U.S. Department of Transportation last month ordered rail companies to provide state emergency response officials the shipping details for trains carrying more than 1 million gallons of Bakken. In issuing its order, the department instructed states to divulge shipping information only to entities that have a “need to know,” such as first responders in areas where shipments occur.

Federal officials apparently are not in accord on what should be disclosed. A spokesman for the Transportation Security Administration told The Sacramento Bee on Friday that his agency had not made any determination on how much information should be made public about crude oil shipments by rail.

“TSA has not made a finding as to whether or not information concerning the volume of crude oil train traffic or the routes used by these trains is considered security-sensitive information,” spokesman Nico Melendez wrote in an email to the Bee. “The determination of whether or not certain data is (security-sensitive information) is dependent upon a number of factors, including the specificity of the information being provided. TSA hasn’t been officially asked to make a determination. If asked, we will review following our standard agency procedure.”

BNSF Railway Co. is the only rail shipper in California that sent information to state emergency services officials following the federal emergency order. State officials, who received the data last week, said BNSF sent little information and that they have asked the company for more details. Huston said emergency officials will review that additional data and decide whether some of it could be made public.

The Bee filed a Public Records Act request asking to be able to view all train information that state emergency response officials receive from railroad companies in response to the federal order. The BNSF sent a letter of its own to state Office of Emergency Services demanding to be told by the state if any such public disclosure request is made, so that BNSF “can determine whether legal or other action to prevent disclosure is appropriate.”

BNSF officials contend that disclosing information about shipments to the general public could expose the trains to criminal acts and harm oil companies by revealing trade secrets.

“Although security regulations allow for limited disclosure of this information, we must all be cognizant that there is a real potential for the criminal misuse of this data in a way that could cause harm to your community or other communities along the rail route,” BNSF wrote in a letter to the state this week.

Trains carrying various hazardous materials can be identified by numbered placards on their sides, but those placards do not specifically identify whether the train is carrying Bakken oil.

‘Congress is watching’

Transportation experts say the question of how much the public should know about oil shipments is a tricky one.

Stephen Flynn, a political science professor at Northeastern University and a transportation safety expert, said the lack of disclosure can make the public less safe. “We need to be much more open as a society about the kind of risks we have.”

Linda Morgan, former chair of the Surface Transportation Board and now a rail industry consultant, acknowledged the fear residents have in many communities and said security is “a legitimate concern.” Morgan said there needs to be a balance. The railroads may need to share some information about crude oil shipments while continuing the work to improve safety. Otherwise, the public may put enough pressure on lawmakers to intervene – something the industry would prefer to avoid.

“Congress is watching,” she said. “I’ve been around when pressure builds.”

After 9/11, the newly created Department of Homeland Security proposed removing the hazardous-materials placards from rail cars, reasoning that the signs could help terrorists plan an attack. But emergency response agencies pushed back, saying the placards help them know what they are dealing with when they arrive at a spill site.

Brigham McCown, former head of the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, said the push by railroads not to have their crude oil transport timetables published has merit in preventing attacks. “If you don’t know when trains are coming through, it’s harder. Randomness adds a level of safety and security.”

He argues that most citizens probably don’t want too many specifics. “If you ask citizens, I think they wouldn’t say they want to know the exact time it’s coming through and what’s on every car,” he said. “But they do want the general knowledge.”

Although the rail industry traditionally has been reluctant to divulge details about its operations, some information it prefers to shield from the public is obtainable from the railroads themselves. A map showing BNSF crude-by-rail facilities and routes is available on the company’s website. That map enabled The Bee to identify a transfer facility at the former McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento that had begun transferring crude oil from trains to trucks without obtaining a required permit.

Another document on BNSF’s website lists dozens of cargos exempt from open-records requirements. They include explosives, radioactive materials and toxic by inhalation gases. Crude oil is not on the list.

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