Oil-train safety kept secret is Headline News Business Report in Philadelphia

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Read the front page business section of the Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday. The railroad/hazardous materials secrecy theme is still being hammered by news media.

Is secrecy really possible with such huge train movements?

Ironically, by trying to play “the secret card” with responsible state and local emergency responders that would have keep that intelligence close, the story line about actual repeating train moves has been pretty much been fully vetted as to routes by the free press.

An hour’s web search by anyone with browser skills can disclose maps with the full rail routes from the North Dakota fields to refineries in NJ, NY, and PA.

It is almost as if the railroad companies do not know how to react well and manage their business story in our modern multimedia internet society. This was my friend and long time professional news media consultant Steve Lubetkin’s alert warning to me about two years ago. Steve almost predicted what would evolve in the rich multi-media environment.

Non disclosure by the corporate executives and their public media staffs to reliable public safety agencies that serve to protect first responders has now resulted in a much wider route mapping exposure than they could have imagined. But they should have imagined it.

It’s accessible to anyone with a smart phone or computer. From any location. At any time.

(As a disclosure: my grandfather and my uncle on my father’s side were first responders)

Excerpts: The investigative report team makes the following major points. When crude oil arrives at a refinery in South Philadelphia or Marcus Hook or Paulsboro, by state law the refinery must have a public plan outlining the hazards, a detailed response to possible accidents, and worst-case scenarios for disasters that could endanger hundreds of thousands of people.

Not so the trains carrying oil to the refineries, writes the Inquirer team.

As they travel past the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia International Airport, along the Schuylkill Expressway, and past thousands of homes, schools and businesses, the oil trains need no public accounting of what they are carrying, or when or where, or what could happen if something goes wrong–with about 150 million gallons of highly flammable crude arriving by train each week.

A shroud of corporate secrecy covers the trains, their cargoes and the safety of their infrastructure, the reporters conclude.

More than 700,000 people in the region — including 400,000 in Philadelphia — live within a half-mile of rail lines that carry crude oil, according to an Inquirer analysis.

Federal emergency-response guidelines recommend a half-mile evacuation zone if an oil tank car catches fire. Railroads cite national security and business reasons for the secrecy surrounding oil trains. They say they work closely with first responders to assure that firefighters and other emergency workers are prepared to deal with oil-train accidents.

Ed Greenberg, spokesman for the Association for American Railroads, claims that the freight railroads “have emergency plans in place for responding to any type of incident along their entire networks. … These are specific plans that are unique to the location and are constantly being updated.”

US RAILROADS EXEMPT FROM SOME FEDERAL HAZARDOUS REGULATIONS

The Inquirer reports this morning that the rail companies are not included in federal laws that imposed public accountability on other industries after major disasters.

Exclusions include the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986 (passed after thousands were killed by a chemical accident in Bhopal, India — involving methyl isocyanate, a deadly chemical that at the time also was being transported by rail in this country) and the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (after the Exxon Valdez ran aground and spilled 11 million gallons of oil in Alaska coastal waters).

Also, freight railroad bridges, unlike highway bridges or bridges owned by passenger train operators, are not subject to public scrutiny.

RAIL BRIDGE UNKNOWNS

The inspections of rail bridges are conducted by the railroads and the results are confidential. The Inquirer report concludes that “Even the Federal Railroad Administration doesn’t know how many rail bridges there are, as there is no public inventory similar to the National Registry of Highway Bridges used by FHWA DOT and PENN DOT.

Optimum Routes

Railroads claim that they use 27 factors in deciding where to route their oil trains, but how they weigh the various factors and make the decision is secret reports the Inquirer.

PENNSYLVANIA BREAKS SECRECY RANKS on some rail data When state or local emergency managers get information from railroads about oil trains, the railroads ask the government agencies to promise to keep the information from the public. In Pennsylvania, the state emergency management agency initially agreed, but has since responded to right-to-know requests by posting some oil-train information on its website.

US DOT ALIGNS WITH RAILROADS RATHER THAN STATES and FIRST RESPONDERS?

The Inquirer reports that new federal oil-train rules issued May 1 provide an additional buffer from public disclosure:

The Department of Transportation will end its requirement for railroads to share information about large volumes of crude oil with state emergency response commissions.

Instead, railroads will share information directly with some emergency responders, but it will be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act and state public records laws.

“Under this approach,” the rule states, “the transportation of crude oil by rail … can avoid the negative security and business implications of widespread public disclosure of routing and volume data ….”

Increasing numbers of fiery derailments of oil trains, such as one this month near Heimdal, ND, are focusing new attention on the lack of information available to people near oil-train corridors. “The information about these trains is basic information that people have a right to know in order to make decisions about their lives and their families,” Carluccio said.

Two major freight carriers, CSX and Norfolk Southern, now move about 50 oil trains through Philadelphia each week, according to documents filed with state officials.

LOCAL DELIVERY

The South Philadelphia refinery operated by Philadelphia Energy Solutions receives two trains a day of up to 120 tank cars each.

HARD TO HIDE SUCH LARGE MILE LONG TRAINS

The National Transportation Safety Board wrote to the U.S. Department of Transportation set a realistic transparency argument for the engaged local and state safety responders: “Having an informed public along rail routes could supplement a carrier’s safety measures and help reduce the consequences of emergencies involving hazardous materials.

“Classifying routing information about hazardous materials as ‘security sensitive’ would unreasonably restrict the public’s access to information that is important to its safety.” This month, Sen. Robert Casey (D., Pa.) joined seven other senators in objecting to the new federal rule change to reduce public disclosure. “While we understand the need for detailed Security Sensitive Information to remain need-to-know, we agree with the NTSB that public disclosure of broader crude-by-rail information, such as volumes and movements, is no way detrimental to transportation safety,” the senators wrote to transportation secretary Anthony Foxx. The new rule “constitutes a setback on disclosure requirements that could hamper our first responders and negatively impact the safety of our communities,” the senators wrote.

WHAT IF INSURANCE RISK

In South Jersey, where a 2012 derailment in Paulsboro of cars containing vinyl chloride forced the evacuation of 1,500 residents, U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross (D., N.J.) made rail safety the subject of the first bill he introduced in Congress last month. “One of the lessons from the derailment in Paulsboro is that residents and first responders need to have better access to hazmat information,” Norcross said. He said his proposed law “is designed to help rail companies communicate with the community and calls on [DOT] to set new reporting guidelines that will aid transparency while keeping our rail lines secure from threats.”

NOTE: If that train had derailed near the 30th Street station tracks used by NS and by CSX the evacuation result could have exceeded 100,000.

SOME LOCAL RESPONDER AGENCIES SIDE WITH SECRECY?

In Philadelphia, the city’s director of emergency management, Samantha Phillips, has declined to release the city’s emergency plan to deal with an oil-train disaster or other hazardous-materials accident. “We don’t share the plan for several reasons,” Phillips said. “It doesn’t make an average member of the public more prepared — the plan is technical in nature. You would have little way of knowing if the plan is good or not. “ … And we do have to balance the information we release in this post-9/11 period. An ill-intentioned actor could misuse the information or endanger our first responders.” A counter argument is offered by the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, which points out that “it is “ironic” that information about trains carrying oil was shielded from public disclosure while routes and schedules of trains carrying people “are made readily available.”

CSX, which moves 15 to 30 oil trains weekly through Philadelphia, Bucks, Delaware and Montgomery Counties, says that “it shares information about our operations that is sensitive to the security environment that exists…”

First responders can get information about what’s in a specific CSX rail car on their cellphones, using a special mobile app, based on a rail car’s unique identification number. That information is transmitted after a derailment. Norfolk Southern, which moves about 20 oil trains weekly through Philadelphia, said, “We have been consistent in not releasing specific crude oil train routing and volume information to the public for reasons of safety and security.”

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