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Don't Ask, Don't Tell
Oregon officials are doing whatever they can to keep the details of crude-by-rail shipments secret from the public—and that includes not asking railroads about them.

UPDATE: Score one for public shaming! Shortly after our story was published, the Oregonian reported that state officials have backed down on their plan to limit disclosure of oil train shipments. Details here.

Rail cars are carrying a lot more crude through Oregon these days thanks to the U.S. fracking boom—250 percent more last year than the year before. The intrepid reporters at the Oregonian newspaper wanted to know if that increase in rail traffic poses a risk. After all, at least one rail car on average slips off the tracks in this country every day, and an oil train derailment in Canada last year killed 47 people and incinerated the center of a small town (see “An Accident Waiting to Happen”).

So the reporters asked the state transportation department for reports detailing crude oil shipments through Oregon, including their location and volume. The reports are required annually by state law and must be shared with first responders, so that local officials can prepare for hazardous materials spills.

Instead of turning over the 2013 reports, as ordered by the state’s Department of Justice, transportation officials decided to simply stop asking for them, in order to protect the railroad’s secrets. From the Oregonian:

Railroads “provided us courtesy copies with the understanding we wouldn’t share it—believing it might be protected,” ODOT spokesman David Thompson said in an email. “We now know that the info is NOT protected; so do the railroads.”

Get it? As long as it remained secret, railroads were fine with turning over the info. But now that it’s clear the public should have it, they don’t want to, so the transportation department is fine with ignoring state law and not asking the railroads to comply. As the paper puts it: “The decision typifies the unusual lengths to which ODOT goes to accommodate the railroads it regulates. Though it is supposed to be an independent safety watchdog, ODOT’s rail division treats the companies it oversees as cooperative stakeholders.”

We’re not just pointing out this story to hail the Oregonian’s crusading journalism (though, yay!). It’s important because crude-by-rail shipments are an increasing concern all over the country. The amount of U.S. oil shipped by rail has quadrupled since 2005, with a corresponding increase in large derailments and spills. The head of the National Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday that the spate of oil train accidents shows that “far too often, safety has been compromised.”

So it’s hard to square those concerns with an Oregon officials’ statement that “the exact quantity of those specific shipments doesn’t impact our work.” It seems that government oversight in Oregon has gone a bit off the rails. Let's hope no oil trains will follow.

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image of Susan Cosier
Susan Cosier is OnEarth's Midwest correspondent. She previously worked at Audubon magazine, and has written for a number of science and environmental publications. She's a graduate of New York University's science journalism program. MORE STORIES ➔