You Can Hide Oil Trains from the Public, But Not from Terrorists

May 28, 2014

As 100-car trains of explosive crude oil snake through U.S. cities and river gorges, the railroad industry continues to tell the public they are being kept secret from terrorists. They are counting on people's fear and credulity to protect them from expense and accountability.

Beginning several years before the 9/11 attacks, U.S. industry groups were urging government to keep secret from the public the risks companies posed with toxic chemicals, pipelines, explosives, and other hazards. Their excuse: terrorism. These things present a danger to the public without terrorists, and reducing risk is expensive. Lack of public knowledge helps prevent public pressure to improve safety.

In July 2013, a tanker train of crude oil derailed and burned in Lac-Migantic, Quebec, killing some 47 people as it burned in the center of the town. The problem was not terrorists, but improper setting of brakes by railroad workers. More oil-train explosions since then have finally brought both industry and regulators to the point of action. And — perhaps — making the threats known to the public.

That contrasts with a long battle between railroads and public-safety advocates in the mid-2000s, when the District of Columbia passed a law requiring rail companies to notify local government of hazmat trains passing through DC. The rail companies and federal government crushed DC in court.

A 2007 law finally suggested that the railroads consider rerouting hazmat trains around vulnerable populations, but made it optional, imposed no serious federal oversight, and allowed the railroads to keep their routes and decisions secret.

Now a series of articles by Rob Davis for the The (Portland) Oregonian seems to have caught the railroads and the feds in their own contradictions. Railroads told Davis that federal law forbade them from disclosing hazmat routes. Davis challenged that, and now federal officials are telling him that it is not true.