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It's hard to know what materials are traveling through Maine by rail. An expert explains why

A black plume rises over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of the controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk and Southern trains on Monday.
Gene J. Puskar
A black plume rises over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of the controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk and Southern trains on Monday.

In East Palestine. Ohio, residents are continuing to call for more government assistance as they deal with the impacts of a train derailment and explosion that emitted a cloud of toxic chemicals.

Recent news coverage of the accident has also highlighted the lack of transparency and regulation in the railroad industry, more broadly. An article in this week’s Portland Press Herald found that little information is available to the general public on what hazardous materials are being transported by freight trains in Maine.

In an interview with Maine Public's Robbie Feinberg, Chop Hardenbergh of Freeport — the former editor of the industry newsletter Atlantic Northeast Rails and Ports — says that there are two reasons for this:

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Hardenbergh:  We know very little because, well, two reasons... There is no requirement that the railroads divulge what is in their railroads, and two, the railroads have no desire to divulge what's in their trains at all.


I think we have to realize that railroads are federally regulated. And they will use that that fact to overcome or to attempt to overcome any state regulation. So states have to, and have in the past, tread very lightly when trying to regulate railroads, for example, and trying to find out what is in trains going through the state.

Feinberg: Those within the railroad industry, they argue that they need to keep this information hidden due to security risks, and that making this kind of information publicly available could create a big safety hazard. Do you think there's validity to those concerns?

Well, yes, in the sense that if if, for example, when we were at war, with Germany, in the Second World War, we didn't want to have saboteurs, knowing what was passing through on U.S. tracks because saboteurs might want to choose to blow up certain tracks. Personally, I don't think there's that much of a concern now about somebody getting in here, however, look at 9/11. So, you know, there's something to be said on each side. I think the more important point to me is, sort of the more salient point, is that railroads don't want to let other railroads know what is in their trains, because that means that other railroads can try to steal that traffic away. And I definitely heard this voiced when I was publishing the newsletter and talking to railroaders.

So these are real business concerns, then, for these railroads, more than maybe safety concerns?

Yes, exactly. For example, if CSX is bringing in a train of propane to let's say, Waterville, Canadian Pacific, which has another line in to Maine from Montreal, can go to the same propane person and say, 'Well, why don't you let us bring the propane in instead?'

In general, what do you view as the larger consequences of not knowing this kind of information about what materials are being carried within these trains? You have talked about trains being you know, close to even your house in Freeport. What do you think the effect of this is on folks who live close by, or even emergency responders in certain communities?

As I understand it, emergency responders would like to be able to know what is in trains before they start passing through the community so that if a derailment happens, they can attend to it fairly quickly. Actual derailments like the one in Lac-Megantic a decade ago, or like the one in East Palestine now, are just are very rare. So I think the railroads might say, 'Look, we know you'd like to know what is going through your community, but 99.9% of the time, it isn't going to matter.'

Chop, you also you did mention that derailment in Quebec from about 10 years ago now. In the months that followed that, a lot of local and regional agencies, they talked about wanting to be better prepared for those kinds of derailments and wanting to get more information from railroad companies on things like hazardous materials or emergency response plans. Did you see any improvement in the years since that happened in terms of getting more information?

Well, we saw the the state win the right to see an annual report about what was passing through the state, which unfortunately, I as a journalist, you as a journalist, or even the general public, can't see those reports anyway. So in terms of my town officials here in Freeport feeling better about what's going through their community, it's not really an improvement. No.

Do you think that there's anything else that can help to reduce the chance of a derailment like what we've seen in Palestine?

Well, there definitely is. And that is something that we in Maine could do if we could help the financial health of the railroads, because even if the railroad's healthy, in another part of the country, it may not want to invest in its track infrastructure here in Maine. And that means that, with worse maintenance, there's an increased likelihood of a derailment.

The other part of financial health is keeping their employees healthy and giving them time off, treating them well so that they can be alert when they are operating. Both of those points can really help increase the safety of our railroads operating here in Maine.