Five months after the government ordered railroads to give states information on shipments of potentially explosive crude oil across borders, Pennsylvania and some counties have not released the disclosures to the public.
The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency signed confidentiality agreements with Norfolk Southern Railway Co. and CSX Transportation Inc., and told counties to do the same, promising to share the “sensitive” reports only with emergency officials, on a need-to-know basis.
Railroad companies, under pressure about public safety, consider information on commodities they carry to be proprietary.
The state Office of Open Records on Friday ordered PEMA to make the reports public within 30 days based on a request from the Tribune-Review and other outlets. PEMA spokesman Cory Angell said the agency would not appeal that order but has not decided when to release them.
“The rail companies will have to make a determination on whether to appeal,” he said.
CSX and Norfolk Southern said they were reviewing the decision.
The U.S. Department of Transportation has agreed with shippers’ stated need for secrecy. It took the rare step of ordering disclosures on certain shipments because of concern that fiery crashes could occur with trains carrying crude from the Bakken region of North Dakota and Montana.
“We signed the confidentiality agreements because the railroads represented that they would not be able to divulge the information without them,” Angell said. “(The) U.S. Department of Transportation had publicly taken the position that railroads could require reasonable confidentiality agreements prior to providing the information.”
People worried about dangerous cargo on rails that run past homes and along rivers say the information should not remain a state secret.
“The residents in the so-called blast zones should be notified of what’s coming through their communities and what is being shipped along our more pristine waterways,” said Krissy Kasserman, the Youghiogheny Riverkeeper at the Mountain Watershed Association in Fayette County.
She is pushing for information from the government, prompted by a June derailment of mostly empty CSX cars on a bridge above the confluence of the Youghiogheny and Monongahela rivers. It was one of several high-profile incidents in Pennsylvania and across North America that pushed leaders to call for tighter controls, special notifications and new tanker cars for carrying the most volatile light crude.
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey Jr., D-Scranton, called for more regulations and asked state leaders to provide information.
“Senator Casey believes residents should receive any and all appropriate information about the materials that rail carriers bring through their communities,” said his spokesman, John Rizzo. “Senator Casey was pleased that the federal government authorized the release of additional information and would encourage officials with oversight authority over this information in Pennsylvania to carefully evaluate ways to appropriately inform the public.”
Officials in North Dakota, Montana, California and Florida released the disclosures they received from railroads in response to media requests. New Jersey and Minnesota are among those that refused.
PEMA denied requests from the Tribune-Review and other media outlets because of the confidentiality agreements. Confidential or security-sensitive information is exempt from the state’s open records law. Angell said the agency does not consider releasing the information a security concern, though the railroads do.
Federal Railroad Administration spokesman Mike England said the Department of Transportation does not consider information release a security threat but took the rare step of requiring disclosure to states because of the safety worries.
The railroads’ main argument in fighting the release relates to business. They want to keep competitors from figuring out pricing and delivery details.
“This would cause substantial harm to Norfolk Southern’s business and ability to compete for shipping this commodity,” company lawyer Craig J. Staudenmaier wrote to the state Office of Open Records in an argument against release.
CSX “is entrusted with considerable information about its customers’ business and is obligated under federal law to protect that confidentiality,” company lawyer Jamie Edwards wrote.
The Office of Open Records said it found no evidence the release of information would harm their business.
Officials in Westmoreland, Armstromg and Indiana counties said they signed confidentiality agreements with railroads. Allegheny and Beaver counties said they consider the information secret. Lawrence, Fayette and Butler counties have not ruled on requests for information. Officials in Greene and Washington counties said they received no notifications from PEMA of crude oil shipments.