Northwest emergency responders have complained about receiving little information about oil train movement through their community. They’re about to get even less.
A set of new rules for oil train safety announced Friday includes mandates for tank car design, upgraded brakes and lower speed limits. The federal Department of Transportation also used it to rescind a requirement it issued last year requiring railroads notify states about shipments of flammable crude.
The notices included volumes of crude being transported, the route, and the frequency of the anticipated weekly train traffic -- such as 17 oil trains per week currently estimated to move through the Columbia River Gorge.
In 2016, those notifications will cease and railroads will be required to provide states with contact information for local officials who want to know about oil trains.
The change is a step backward for oil train transparency pushes by Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley. This week Wyden, Merkley and four other Democratic senators sponsored a bill that would increase the level of public disclosure on oil train shipments.
“It just seems to me given the community meetings we’ve held on this, we really ought to be expanding the information about oil train routes, and that’s not being done here,” Wyden said of the new rule. “I had hoped it would be bolder.”
When oil trains first started moving through the Northwest, spill planners, emergency management officials and local firefighters were left in the dark. They didn't find out until mile-long trains of flammable crude were already moving through their communities.
The DOT's notification requirement came in response to that communication gap, which happened across the country. Railroads, citing concerns over security and business confidentiality, fought the public release of that information and sought non-disclosure agreements with states where they filed the notices.
Wyden and Merkley then urged railroads and the Department of Transportation to increase transparency about oil train shipments. The order pertained only to shipments of Bakken crude larger than one million gallons. The lawmakers wanted a lower threshold, and for notifications to apply to all types of oil. They were unsuccessful.
Transparency lagged again this year when mile-long trains of Canadian tar sands crude began moving through Oregon and Washington and emergency responders again didn't learn about it until more than a month after the fact.
In its final rule, the Department of Transportation said the change “addresses concerns over security of the routing requirements sensitive and confidential business information” and “addresses the the need for action in the form of additional communication between railroads and emergency responders.”