As various states and local governments continue to pressure railroad companies that transport crude oil on safety and transparency issues, railroad executives have argued that disclosing information about hazardous rail shipments poses a security risk and should be protected proprietary information.
In May, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued an emergency order mandating that railroads transporting more than 1 million gallons of Bakken crude from North Dakota disclose details about those shipments to emergency response commissions in the states where the trains will travel through.
Two major railroads, Norfolk Southern and CSX Transportation have sued the Maryland Department of Environment to block it from disclosing information about its rail shipments to media organizations, according to The Sun newspaper in Baltimore.
At issue is whether Tom Levering, the department’s director of emergency preparedness who serves as the state’s emergency point of contact with the railroads, can disclose that information through a public records requests when he signed a confidentiality agreement with the railroads.
According to the Sun:
. . . [A]fter reporters with McClatchy and the Associated Press filed state Public Information Act requests for the reports last month, the agency notified the railroads that it would be releasing the documents on July 24 unless the companies took legal action. Attorneys for the agency said Levering was not authorized to sign an agreement in conflict with the public information law.
Norfolk Southern filed a complaint for injunctive relief July 23. CSX did the same the following day. Both have since filed for temporary restraining orders in the case.
Rail companies prefer to keep details about crude oil shipments confidential and some states have agreed, but others have decided that the records can be made public.
Several states — including California, Washington, Illinois and Florida — have fulfilled open records requests from news organizations and others. Though rail companies didn’t want the information made public, none had pursued a legal challenge to block its release.
But Maryland appears to be the first state where the disclosure is being challenged by the railroads.
Initially, federal officials asked states to honor confidentiality agreements but the Transportation Department “eventually conceded that no federal law protected the information from public disclosure,” according to McClatchy.
Maryland is no stranger to the dangers and impacts of freight rail derailments.
Rail tunnels built through Baltimore in the 19th century are a choke point for freight trains traveling up and down the East Coast and connecting to the city’s port facilities. In 2001, a freight train carrying hazardous chemicals derailed in CSX’s Howard Street Tunnel and caused a massive underground fire that snarled rail shipments through the city.
In May 2013, a trash truck was struck by CSX freight train in a Baltimore suburb, causing a derailment and massive fire ball.
This spring, the same day a CSX train carrying crude oil derailed in a fiery explosion in Lynchburg, Virginia, an aging railroad embankment in Baltimore gave way after heavy rains, temporarily cutting off the lone CSX freight-rail link between the city and Philadelphia.
This month, federal authorities announced that they were considering new freight-rail safety rules for crude-oil shipments.