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Environmental Groups Accuse Maine DEP of Withholding Information on Dangerous Rail Shipments

Until recently, the public could get details from the state about shipments of crude oil and other hazardous materials moving through Maine by rail.

But now, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection has stopped providing this information, as the attorney general reviews a change to the state's Freedom of Access Law.

The tweak, in a bill passed earlier this year over Governor Paul LePage's objection, says information about hazardous rail shipments, provided to emergency responders, can be kept private.

Rail safety advocates say shielding this information puts local communities at risk, but industry officials say disclosing it would create security concerns.

Worries over safety on the nation's freight rail lines have escalated in recent years, due to accidents involving trains carrying oil from the Bakken formation in North Dakota and the tar sands of Alberta, Canada. Last year, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued an emergency order, requiring freight lines to alert state emergency agencies about the routes of trains carrying more than a million gallons of North Dakota crude. The railroads, in turn, have lobbied states to keep the information from the public, citing security concerns.

"The policy was the rails would provide the information to us," says David Madore, spokesperson at the Maine Department of Enviromental Protection, which oversees the state teams that respond to oil spills and the release of other hazardous materials.

"Normally, we would make this information available to the press," Madore says. "Or sometimes we have national magazines that look at those numbers."

But this process has stopped, at least for now, due to a new state law that took effect in October. It says that information about hazardous rail shipments, provided to emergency responders, can no longer be given to the public, under the state's Freedom of Access law. But activists with the group 350 Maine say taking the right to know, away from local communities, puts them at risk. Bob Klotz is 350 Maine's spokesman.

"It is not safe to transport these explosive fuels through rail," says Klotz. "The infrastructure is not set up to do it adequately. The train cars that we have that have been used aren't save. And it's already been shown that the newer tankers that they suggested would be safer aren't either."

In late June of 2013, six members of 350 Maine were arrested in Fairfield, after blocking a train carrying crude oil. A little over a week later, another train hauling crude derailed in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people. The freight rail industry, though, makes its own "public safety" argument for why the details of hazardous shipments should be kept from the public.


Activists, though, dismiss the terror threat and argue the industry doesn't want the information made public because the track infrastructure in Maine is too unstable to be carrying large shipments of oil. Those shipments, though, have come to a virtual stand still since Lac-Megantic. State officials, meanwhile, have asked Attorney General Janet Mills for help, figuring out whether Maine DEP can resume releasing information on hazardous rail shipments.

"We have provided this information, historically," says Madore. "People look to these numbers. And so, we are recognizing the fact that there is an interest in this information. But at this point, this legislation sort of binds our hands."

David Madore says DEP officials will meet with lawyers in the AG's office again next week to try to resolve the question.