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Despite Confidentiality Concerns, BNSF Will Report Oil Shipments To States

Raymond D. Woods Jr.
Flickr -

BNSF Railway said Friday it will comply with Saturday's federal deadline to provide states with information about the frequency and routes of oil trains from North Dakota and Montana.

The railroad made that announcement even though Washington, Oregon and Idaho have balked at signing confidentiality agreements about the crude oil shipments.

BNSF wanted assurances from Northwest states that details about oil train operations would be shared only on a need-to-know basis with emergency managers and first-responders. Washington officials said the railroad’s confidentiality agreement could run afoul of the state’s strong public records law. Oregon and Idaho also declined to sign pending a legal review.

The Washington’s Military Department's Karina Shagren welcomed BNSF’s decision to submit oil shipment reports even without the confidentiality agreements in place.

“That information will allow first responders to examine what type of resources they currently have and where their holes are in the event we have a major disaster involving Bakken crude oil,” Shagren said.

In a statement, BNSF said it expects states to treat the oil shipment information as “sensitive and confidential.” If public records requests are filed, the state of Washington says it will give railroads 10 days to seek a court injunction to block the release of the information.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s emergency order applies to railroads that ship more than 1 million gallons of crude oil through a state.

Railroads that fail to report high-volume oil shipments can face federal fines of $175,000 per day.

Officials in Washington and Idaho say they’ve been notified by Union Pacific Railroad that it doesn’t transport enough oil to meet the federal threshold for reporting. However, Washington officials were surprised to get oil shipment reports from two small, short-line railroads: Tacoma Link and Portland and Western.

There have been four notable oil train accidents in the last year. The worst was the catastrophic fire and explosion last July in Quebec that killed 47. In April, an oil train in Virginia derailed, caught fire and spilled crude into the James River.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."