A House of Representatives bill unveiled Friday could make it more difficult for the public to know how prepared railroads are for responding to oil spills from trains, their worst-case scenarios and how much oil is being transported by rail through communities.
The language appears in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s six-year transportation legislation, which primarily addresses federal programs that support state road, bridge and transit projects. But the legislation also includes a section on oil trains.
The U.S. Department of Transportation is working on a rule to require railroads shipping oil to develop comprehensive spill response plans along the lines of those required for pipelines and waterborne vessels. It would also require them to assess their worst-case scenarios for oil spills, including quantity and location.
The House bill would give the secretary of transportation the power to decide what information would not be disclosed to the public.
The secretary would have discretion to withhold anything proprietary or security sensitive, as well as “specific response resources and tactical resource deployment plans” and “the specific amount and location of worst-case discharges, including the process by which a railroad carrier determines the worst-case discharge.”
The House bill defines “worst-case discharge” as the largest foreseeable release of oil in an accident or incident, as determined by the rail carrier.
Four major oil train derailments have occurred in the U.S. since the beginning of the year, resulting in the release of more than 600,000 gallons, according to federal spill data.
Numerous states have released information on crude by rail shipments to McClatchy and other news organizations. DOT began requiring railroads to notify state officials of such shipments last year after a train derailed and caught fire in Lynchburg, Va.
The disclosures were opposed by railroads and their trade associations, which asked the department to drop the requirement. The department tried to accommodate the industry’s concerns in its May final rule on oil train safety by making the reports exempt from disclosure. But facing backlash from lawmakers and emergency response groups, the department reversed itself.
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, and Sarah Feinberg, the acting chief of the Federal Railroad Administration, said the department would continue the disclosure requirement and make it permanent. But a new administration could take a different approach.
“We strongly support transparency and public notification to the fullest extent possible,” Feinberg said in July.
In May, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill that would require railroads operating in the state to plan for their worst-case spills.
In April, BNSF Railway told state emergency responders that the company currently considers 150,000 gallons of crude oil, enough to fill five rail tank cars, its worst-case scenario when planning for spills into waterways. A typical 100-car oil train carries about 3 million gallons.
Washington state requires marine ships that transport oil to plan for a spill of the entire cargo.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency conducted a mock derailment in New Jersey in March in which 450,000 gallons of oil was released.
California passed a similar bill last year, but two railroads and a major trade association challenged it in court, claiming the federal laws regulating railroads preempted state laws. A judge sided with the state in June, but without addressing the preemption question.
The House Transportation Committee will consider the six-year bill when lawmakers return from recess next week. The current legislation expires on Oct. 29, and the timing makes a short-term extension likely.
After the committee and the full House vote on the bill, House and Senate leaders will have to work out their differences before the bill goes to the president’s desk.
Samantha Wohlfeil of the Bellingham (Wash.) Herald contributed.