Railroad company says oil train information should be confidential

OLYMPIA — Washington leaders hope to get a better idea this week how often trains loaded with oil extracted from Bakken Shale in North Dakota travel through Snohomish County and the rest of the state.

Railroads face a Friday deadline to tell the state how many trains per week each carry at least 1 million gallons of the highly flammable variety of crude oil in Washington and on what routes. A million gallons works out to about 35 tank cars.

But under the emergency order of the U.S. Department of Transportation, railroads don’t have to reveal what days and times the trains are coming or precisely how much crude is aboard.

On Wednesday, Union Pacific, which doesn’t have a large presence in Western Washington, told the state it has nothing to report. That doesn’t mean the Union Pacific isn’t shipping Bakken crude to locations in Washington — only that it isn’t handling quantities large enough to be subject to disclosure, said Karina Shagren, a spokeswoman for the Emergency Management Division.

BNSF Railway, meanwhile, which is the dominant carrier north of Seattle and to points east, is reluctant to hand over some of the required information. BNSF ships Bakken crude — likely through Snohomish County — to a refinery in Anacortes.

BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas said that the firm averages one and a half to two trains loaded with Bakken going to “facilities in the Pacific Northwest in a 24-hour period.”

He didn’t say how much oil those trains carry, or which routes they travel — the information required by the federal order. BNSF will comply with the federal requirement by informing state officials but doesn’t want all the information made public, he said.

“BNSF believes 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,” Melonas wrote in an email.

The company wanted state officials to sign a confidentiality agreement but they refused.

“We believe the information regarding the rail transport of oil through Washington state that is now required by the federal government is a public record,” said Attorney General Bob Ferguson. “My office is committed to ensuring the state’s public records laws are upheld.”

Ferguson did make a counteroffer: The state would not hand out information without first giving the company a chance to try to block its release. BNSF had not responded as of Wednesday.

If BNSF doesn’t provide all the required information by Friday, the federal government could bar it from transporting Bakken oil in excess of 1 million gallons per train through Washington.

In the meantime, members of a Snohomish County group might be able to fill in details about BNSF shipments after spending a week in April observing trains and cargo traveling through Edmonds, Everett and Marysville.

They counted 16 shipments of oil and 20* of coal, said Dean Smith of Everett, organizer of the effort known as Snohomish County Train Watch. Volunteers, who watched tracks around the clock at four locations from April 21 through 28, also counted plenty of trains carrying passengers and other types of freight, he said.

Smith will discuss the findings in more detail at a community meeting at the Everett Public Library. The event begins at 6:45 p.m.

Concern about rail transport of Bakken crude has escalated in part because of a handful of derailments in the past year, most notably one in Quebec in which 47 people died.

In Washington, worries about an accident are increasing as rail shipments of all types of crude oil multiply in Washington. The state Department of Ecology estimates it went from zero barrels in 2011 to nearly 17 million barrels — roughly 714 million gallons — in 2013.

The source of Bakken crude, North Dakota, is now the No. 2 oil-producing state, according to the Association of American Railroads.

“Union Pacific currently does not run Bakken crude oil trains exceeding the threshold,” Ben Salo, manager of the firm’s hazardous materials division, wrote to the State Emergency Response Commission. The commission is part of the state Emergency Management Division.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

Correction, June 5, 2014: Snohomish County Train Watch counted 20 coal shipments during a week in April. The number was incorrect in a previous version of this story.

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