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Forum editorial: Say 'no' to oil train secrecy

North Dakota is steeped in a tradition of open government records and meetings, and therefore should resist mightily efforts by the BNSF Railway to hide from the public information about how much Bakken crude oil the railroad moves and where. The disclosure requirement was ordered in a May 7 executive order from the U.S. Department of Transportation. In response, the railroad is pressuring states along the tracks that carry mile-long tank car trains to sign confidentiality agreements.

Thus far, North Dakota officials say they will not sign for several reasons, the most important of which is that such an agreement would run afoul of the state’s open records law. Furthermore, once oil train data were transferred from the state to local responders (who need the info to plan for oil train accidents) the state could not guarantee confidentiality.

Nor should it even try.

Despite North Dakota’s reluctance to conceal oil train information from the public, BNSF said it released the data to the state with the expectation that the state will “treat this data as confidential, providing it only to those with a need-to-know for security and planning purposes with the understanding that people who receive the data will continue to treat is as confidential.” The threat of a $175,000 per day fine and/or a halt to train movement probably had something to do with BNSF’s decision to provide the information, caveats and all.

This is the same railroad that in response to several oil train accidents, including a derailment and fire near Casselton, N.D., in December, touts a 99.9 percent safety record for transporting hazardous materials. If that’s accurate, BNSF willingly should inform the public about the movement of Bakken crude, which has demonstrated its unique volatility. Concern along the rails could very well be ameliorated by open and honest conduct by the railroad. Instead, BNSF feeds its own public relations nightmare by hiding pertinent data from the public, which in turn, could actually escalate public worries.

At this point, North Dakota officials, including Homeland Security Director Greg Wilz, will recommend not signing the railroad’s gag order at a State Emergency Response Commission meeting on June 25. SERC receives the oil train timing and volume estimates from the railroad. So far so good.

But the state should not underestimate the railroad’s persuasive power. Citing security and proprietary business protocols, expect BNSF to push hard to abrogate the open records law because, they will argue, keeping data from the public is “necessary.”

Don’t buy it. North Dakota officials should stand firm for the public’s right to know about what passes through their towns on the rails.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.