BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — U.S. transportation officials said Wednesday that details about volatile oil train shipments are not sensitive security information, after railroads sought to keep the material from the public following a string of fiery accidents.
The U.S. Department of Transportation has ordered railroads to give state officials specifics on oil-train routes and volumes so emergency responders can better prepare for accidents.
Railroads have convinced some states to sign agreements restricting the information's release for business and security reasons.
But the Federal Railroad Administration determined the information is not sensitive information that must be withheld from the public to protect security, said Kevin Thompson, the agency's associate administrator.
Thompson added that railroads could have appropriate claims that the information should be kept confidential for business reasons, but said states and railroads would have to work that out.
Montana officials said they intend to publicly release the oil-train information next week.
The move is mandated under the state's open records law and will help protect public safety by raising community awareness, said Andrew Huff, chief legal counsel for Gov. Steve Bullock.
"Part of the whole reason the federal government ordered that this information be given to states is to protect the communities through which these trains roll," Huff told The Associated Press. "If there's not some federal pre-emption or specific regulation or statute that prevents release of this information, then under our records laws we have to release it."
Washington state officials also have said the oil-train details should be made public under state law. Last week, they gave railroads 10 days to seek a court injunction challenging the release of the information.
An oil-train derailment and explosion in Quebec last July killed 47 people. Subsequent derailments and fires in Alabama, North Dakota, Virginia and New Brunswick have drawn criticism from lawmakers in Congress that transportation officials have not done enough to safeguard against further explosions.
In response to the accidents, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in last month's order that railroads must provide the details on routing and oil-train volumes to states. The order covered trains hauling a million gallons of oil or more from the Bakken region of North Dakota, Montana and parts of Canada.
The Bakken's light, sweet crude is more volatile than many other types of oil. It's been involved in most of the major accidents as the crude-by-rail industry rapidly expanded during the past several years.
Some states have agreed to requests from BNSF Railway, CSX and Union Pacific to keep the information confidential after the railroads cited security concerns. Those include California, New Jersey, Virginia, Minnesota and Colorado.
Officials in New York, North Dakota and Wisconsin said they still were weighing whether restrictions on the information would violate state open-records laws.
State officials who questioned the confidentiality agreements sought by the railroads have said the notifications about oil trains were not specific enough to pose a security risk.
BNSF — the main carrier of crude oil in many western states — was notified late Tuesday of Montana's intentions. A representative of the Texas-based company had said in a June 13 letter that BNSF would consider legal action if Montana moved to release the details on oil shipments.
"We must be cognizant that there is a real potential for the criminal misuse of this data in a way that could cause harm to your community or other communities along the rail route," wrote Patrick Brady, BNSF's director of hazardous materials, in a letter to a senior official at the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.
Company spokesman Matt Jones said Wednesday that at this time BNSF has no plans to ask a court to intervene.
While it's important for emergency planners to have the information, Jones added, BNSF will "continue to urge discretion in the wider distribution of specific details."
A second railroad, Montana Rail Link, submitted notifications earlier this month revealing that its tracks were carrying three oil trains a week along a route from Huntley, Montana, to Sandpoint, Idaho. The railroad said the trains pass through as many as 12 counties across southern and western Montana and through Bonner County in Idaho, according to copies of the documents obtained by the AP.
U.S. crude oil shipments by rail topped a record 110,000 carloads in the first quarter of 2014. That was the highest volume ever moved by rail, spurred by the booming production of shale oil from the Northern Plains and other parts of the country, according to the Association of American Railroads.