Texas attorney general rules that oil train records are public

Train TracksAccording to the state attorney general, oil-train records that the Texas Department of Public Safety argued were exempt from public records law are, in fact, not.  Last week, the attorney general ruled that the records must be made available to any and all news organizations and public parties interested in them.

The case stems from a dispute with Kansas City Southern Railway, who had previously argued that there could be a number of detrimental effects that would follow the release of their records.  For starters, they argued that customer security and safety could be jeopardized, thought this was more of a stretch to make sense of than what was likely the primary concern:  the fact that their competitors might gain an insight into the railway’s workings.

Last year, oil shipments by rail were at over half a million.  Compare this to 2008, when just 10,000 railroad oil shipments were tracked, and it’s easy to see why the records might be relevant.  In a look into railway accidents and the potential hazards of shipping oil by rail, news conglomerate McClatchy requested records from 20 states, Texas included, on their oil shipments by rail.

The requests were met with mixed reactions from state to state.  In some, records were handed over, while in others railroad companies tried to get state authorities to allow the documents to stay private, provided they could be turned over to emergency medical responders when necessary.  The Federal Railroad Administration also weighed in on the matter by issuing an opinion to be used as guidance by railroads, which stated that it did not find information about the number of trains running per week and their routes to be sensitive information – with regard to security or commercial interest.

Others besides Texas who did not opt to immediately release all requested information included West Virginia, where just last Monday a crude oil train exploded after coming off of its tracks mid-transport.  Last May, a derailment near Lynchburg, Virginia, which resulted in an oil spill and an evacuation, caused the U.S. Department of Transportation to begin requiring reporting on shipments of crude oil across specific (though not all) state lines.

Texas and West Virginia are far from the only states to raise a fuss, however.  Last July, railroads CSX and Norfolk Southern sued Maryland’s Department of the Environment in order to try and block the release of information on oil train shipments to both McClatchy and to the Associated Press.  The case is still pending, with a trial date set for April of this year.

Transportation and shipping companies in general have a long history of being reluctant to comply with public records requests, often citing potential “trade secrets” release.  What makes these cases more complicated, as is the case with the latest oil train issues, is that these companies are often doing business with state run agencies which are required to make all of their records public, creating a gray area that can take months or years to get cleared up by a judge.