The United States Department of Transportation has ordered the nation’s rail lines to let states know how much crude oil is coming through from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota. The Bakken crude is especially flammable and derailments off trains carrying it have resulted in disastrous fires.
Iowa officials are in dispute with the rail lines about whether to release the information to the general public. The new DOT guidelines say any rail line hauling one million gallons of Bakken crude through Iowa has to inform the agency about where it’s going and how much.
Homeland Security and Emergency Management director, Mark Schouten says two rail lines — the Burlington Northern and Canadian Pacific — have reported the information and also asked that it stay confidential. “They have given notice of their shipments. We are prepared to release that information, but not quite yet,” Scouten says.
Schouten says state law allows officials to withhold such information when security is at stake. Officials have concluded that’s not the case here and the state has given the rail lines ten days to intervene in court. If they don’t file by the July 7th deadline, the information will go out to the media and anyone else who requests it. Schouten says local emergency management officials will get the information regardless, and they may not be too surprised. “Emergency Management coordinators in those counties knew much of the same information. I mean, we’ve had Bakken oil around for quite some time,” Schouten says.
But at least one local official says the information isn’t available. Wappello County emergency management coordinator, Josh Stephens, says a commodity survey revealed that some tank cars coming through town do carry crude oil — but Stephens doesn’t know whether that includes Bakken crude. He says if they knew how much of the more volatile substance was coming through their town, they might make planning for potential crude oil derailments a bigger priority. “We typically we choose the one we see the most occurrence of,” according to Stephens. For example, he says they have done specific training for anhydrous ammonia because they know how much of that dangerous chemical is traveling through the county by rail.
Schouten says the Sierra Club is the only group to ask for the Iowa information about Bakken crude routes and volume. Schouten says he is aware of the several derailments involving Bakken crude, including one where 47 people were killed in Canada. “Certainly something we want to avoid at all costs here in the state of Iowa,” Schouten says. In written statements officials with the two rail lines argue that revealing the information would threaten security and jeopardize trade secrets.
Other states have seen the push back from the railroads too. The chief legal counsel for the governor of Montana, Andrew Huff, says they also declined to sign a confidentiality agreement because of the state’s “right to know” clause under the state constitution. Montana gave the rail lines a deadline to go to court to stop the release of the information and none of the railroads did so and Montana posted the routes and volume of Bakken crude shipments on its website.
It turns out that Wappello County may have the more volatile crude coming through town, but Schouten says it’s not one million gallons per train. That means the new information about where its going and how much won’t be immediately available there.
By Joyce Russell, Iowa Public Radio