Many States Hide Rail Hazmat Threats from Public at Companies' Behest

July 17, 2014

Defying federal regulators and putting the lives of firefighters at risk, many states are hiding the threats of hazmat railcars at the urging of the railroad industry which profits from them.

It's not like you can't figure these things out. Trains full of explosive crude oil, for example, may be obvious as a string of 100-odd identical black tankers rolls through populated areas. The number on the DOT-required diamond-shaped flammability placard on each car probably has the number 1257 on it.

When a train like that derailed in the Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic on July 6, 2014, it incinerated half the town and killed some 47 people. It's not just crude oil that's an issue. A single tanker full of chlorine gas (placard number 1017) could kill or injure tens of thousands of people. Nearly as bad would be anhydrous ammonia (number 1005) or hydrofluoric acid (number 1790), both toxic inhalation hazards.

Local governments, whose first responders bear the brunt of dealing with rail hazmat incidents, have been pleading with the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) for years to let them know about the routes, schedules, and chemical identities of hazmats shipped through populated areas. The railroads and hazmat shippers, long abetted by federal bureaucrats, have resisted.

But surprisingly, the skyrocketing number of derailments and fires caused the FRA to issue an order June 18, 2014, requiring railroads to give states hazmat routing and cargo specifics so they can prepare for disasters. The railroads then began lobbying the states to defy the FRA's public safety order.

States submitting to railroad pressure and putting public safety at risk by refusing to disclose routes and schedules have so far included Louisiana, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Nebraska. States agreeing to disclose routes and schedules include New York, Montana, California (partially), Virginia, Wisconsin and Iowa. A number of states (such as Oregon and New Jersey) have been straddling the fence, for example by disclosing the information to first responders but not letting the first responders disclose it to the public.

Railroads and chemical companies have argued speciously for years that disclosure would help terrorists. Not even the FRA buys that claim anymore. There have been at least 12 significant oil-train derailments since May 2013 in North America, according to PublicSource — and none have involved terrorists. More likely causes, it seems, are neglected track maintenance and operator error.