The Public Eye: Fight over crude-oil transports through California intensifies

tbizjak@sacbee.comJune 9, 2014 

The fight over the secrecy of crude-oil rail shipments through California intensified Monday.

Responding to a federal order, BNSF Railway Co. acknowledged in a report to state safety officials that it’s transporting flammable Bakken crude oil in California, but it continued to vehemently resist releasing information about the shipments to the public. Such information is a trade secret, and only fire responders should be allowed to know, the company says.

Kelly Huston, deputy director of the state Office of Emergency Services, responded that the state wants to provide as much information as possible to the public about crude oil’s movement on the rails, but the data the railroad has turned over appear limited. “We aren’t convinced that the information we were provided meets the intent of the (federal Department of Transportation’s) emergency order,” Huston said.

The dispute over whether BNSF revealed enough about its oil shipments came a day before a panel of California safety officials plans to release a report saying not enough is being done to protect the public, waterways and habitat from potential railroad spills of crude oil.

Oil companies increasingly have turned to Bakken crude from North Dakota, which is cheaper than foreign oil. Because there are few pipelines available, rail shipments are rising sharply throughout the United States. The National Transportation Safety Board and others warn that the rail cars used nationwide are not strong enough to safely transport the flammable liquid. Federal transportation officials say they are working on new standards for sturdier crude-oil tank cars.

Oil and railroad companies point out that almost all shipments arrive safely at their destinations. Several derailments and fiery spills have caused alarm, though, including a Bakken crude crash last year that killed 47 people and destroyed blocks of downtown in Lac-Megantic, Quebec.

Sacramento Interim Fire Chief Lloyd Ogan said Monday he recently learned from state officials that Sacramento is one of the cities that Bakken shipments pass through. Ogan said the state offered no other details.

“I can’t tell you what the quantities have been” or when they come through, he said. “We only know some has gone through, only because we asked questions.”

Ogan said he and other first responders want more information about shipments to allow them to be better prepared for potential derailments, leaks and fires.

Following a federal safety warning about the potential higher volatility of Bakken, the U.S. Department of Transportation last month issued an emergency order requiring railroads to tell emergency response agencies more about where and when they ship Bakken oil in trains with roughly 35 or more crude-oil tank cars.

BNSF, an acronym for Burlington Northern Santa Fe – one of the nation’s largest freight railroads – is the only rail company that submitted documents to California by the federal government’s Saturday night deadline. BNSF representatives argue that the state should not make that information public and that any fire departments that receive information about Bakken crude shipments must keep it confidential.

“We believe this type of shipment data is considered security sensitive and confidential, intended for people who have ‘a need to know’ for such information, such as first responders and emergency planners,” BNSF spokeswoman Lena Kent said in an email sent to The Bee. “We will work with California and ... trust that they will follow the guidance given by the U.S. Department of Transportation to treat this data as confidential.”

Huston said his department is looking into BNSF’s assertion that its train-routing information is confidential. “Our goal is to be as transparent as possible because this information is, ultimately, all about the public’s safety,” he said.

The Bee has filed a Public Records Act request with the Office of Emergency Services for copies of BNSF’s train transport documents.

A group of more than a half dozen state agencies plans to release a report today concluding that the federal government has not gone far enough “to address the risks of increased oil by rail transport.” The report offers a series of safety recommendations.

“When you see some of the accidents that have happened in the last 18 months, it opened our eyes to this shift to rail,” said Tom Cullen, head of the state Office of Spill Prevention and Response.

The report notes that crude-oil trains are expected to travel along the Feather River and over Donner Pass to the Bay Area, as well as through Tehachapi Pass to Bakersfield and Los Angeles, passing through some of the state’s most densely populated and ecologically sensitive areas.

The report calls for the state to increase the number of rail inspectors, bulk up emergency response preparedness at state level, and provide local fire departments – notably rural departments – with more money to deal with problems. The report also says the state should request the federal government to require more detailed placards on trains to better identify what they are carrying, and to give more real-time shipping information to first responders. The group also suggests posting a map on the Internet showing crude-by-rail routes throughout the state.

Sacramento is expected to be a main crossroads for crude oil transport. Valero Refining Co. is planning to run two 50-car crude-oil trains a day from Roseville to its refinery in Benicia. The trains, which would pass through downtown Sacramento and Davis, may use the Union Pacific line that runs through Redding and Dunsmuir.

Call The Bee’s Tony Bizjak, (916) 321-1059. Reporter Curtis Tate of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed to this report.

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