WASHINGTON — Five trains loaded with Bakken crude oil roll through Whatcom County each week, according to BNSF Railway figures released by Washington state on Tuesday, June 24.
That ranked on the low end for Washington state. Klickitat County gets the most BNSF trains carrying Bakken crude, at 19 per week. Snohomish gets 10 and Skagit County nine, according to the BNSF data. The information came from a one-week count of rail traffic, for May 29-June 4.
The data was released after the nation's largest haulers of crude oil by rail appeared to abandon their insistence that information about such shipments could not be shared publicly for security reasons.
Meanwhile, states, including some that had previously signed nondisclosure agreements, also reversed course and made the information public with no protest from the railroads.
Courtney Wallace, a spokeswoman for BNSF, the largest hauler of crude oil by rail in North America, said Tuesday that the railroad received guidance from U.S. Department of Transportation that the information wasn't protected.
"Once it became clear from the federal government that crude oil was not considered sensitive, secure information, we continued on our path of simply complying" with the department's emergency order to provide it, she said in an email.
While Washington state released the information Tuesday, other states, including California and Idaho, continue to review the information to determine what they're legally allowed to make public. Idaho lies between the oil's origin in North Dakota and its Washington destinations, so it's likely that virtually all of the oil traverses that state.
Virginia, which originally sided with the railroads, last week reversed itself after seeking guidance from the state attorney general. The state Department of Emergency Management posted the information on its website.
Several derailments of trains carrying crude oil from North Dakota's Bakken region in the past year have raised concerns in cities and states across the continent. The spilled oil ignited massive fires in Quebec, Alabama, North Dakota and Virginia, often surprising local mayors, fire chiefs and police chiefs who were never told about the shipments.
After an April 30 derailment of a CSX crude oil train in Lynchburg, Va., the U.S. Department of Transportation gave the industry 30 days to begin providing basic details about the shipments, including routing, frequency and volume, to emergency responders.
However, the railroads insisted that states limit public release of the information, calling it security sensitive, and asked them to sign nondisclosure agreements. But neither the Transportation Department nor the railroads could identify a specific legal justification for keeping the information secret. A letter from BNSF to the California Office of Emergency Services cited "homeland security regulations" but didn't elaborate.
Stephen Flynn, a transportation security expert at Northeastern University, said in an interview that he did not believe the documents released this week contained security-sensitive information. At least some of the information that's been shared by the states was already available from other sources, including the railroads themselves.
Tacoma, for example, receives three trains of Bakken crude oil a week, each with 90 to 120 tank cars, according to a document released by state officials on Monday. It does not reveal what days or what times the cargo arrives, nor the route it takes.
A map on BNSF's own website, though, identifies Tacoma as a destination for crude oil.
Underscoring the need to provide the information to emergency responders, one of the trains that was bound for Florida derailed last November near Aliceville, Ala. Though no one was killed or injured, the crash spilled hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude and ignited a fire that could be seen for miles.