Maine Law Hid Threats to Public from Oil Trains

February 17, 2016

The battle to protect communities from incineration by exploding oil trains is hardly over — and the battle to inform the public of the dangers they face is touch and go. Case in point: the state of Maine, next door to Quebec, where in 2013 an oil train killed 47 people.

Maine passed a law in 2015 that allowed railroads to keep oil-train routing information from the public — over the governor's veto. It was sold partly on assurances that the first responders who would face the most danger from train explosions would get to know what was in the hazmat cars.

But reporter Dave Sherwood recently showed that that provision was a bait-and-switch — written so that it could not be enforced, while the language keeping threat information from the public was air-tight. Sherwood reports for the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, and the story was carried in the Bangor Daily News. The bill was passed into law with no debate, Sherwood reports.

Federal rules require railroads to report shipments of oil and other hazardous materials to the states. But state legislatures, which are often more pliable to railroad lobbyists than federal agencies are, can enact exemptions to state open-records laws that keep such vital information from the public whose safety it affects. In Maine's case, it was the 460th exemption to the state's open records law.

Other states let the public know. A Maryland judge last year upheld an open-records request from McClatchy and the Associated Press for oil train routing information. Also disclosing the information in whole or in part are Wisconsin, Montana, Illinois, North Dakota, Idaho, Washington and Pennsylvania.

SEJ Publication Types: