Toxic Tank Cars? There's an App for That

October 9, 2013

At SEJ's annual conference last week, Camilla Mortensen told of being "slapped down" by the Oregon Attorney General's office when she filed an open records request for info on oil trains like the one that incinerated Lac-Mégantic. Everyone knows oil trains are rolling through her home town of Eugene, Oregon. But the state government, like the federal government and the rail freight industry, protects itself from citizens by refusing to tell them.

The ostensible reason is terrorism. But that is just a knee-slapper. Any terrorist with a smartphone can download an app that tells him what hazardous material is in a tank car as it rolls by. You can, too, if you want to know about tankers full of chlorine, ammonia, or crude oil rolling through your own town.

A favorite app is called UN Number, but there are others. It costs $1.49.

When the government refused to tell her about oil trains, Mortensen learned about them from a train-hopping local cinematographer. Now you can roam the freight yards with your camera and know what you are looking at.

So despite Oregon's effort to keep people from knowing about it, Mortensen published a fine story about long, dangerous oil trains rolling through Eugene. With good photos from her cinematographer friend, Micah Griffin.

To be sure, the list of "UN numbers" that translate the hazmat codes from railcar placards into something firefighters and journalists can use is available in other places. But having the app is cool.