PORTLAND, Maine — Information revealing when, where and how much hazardous material is shipped by rail through Maine became sealed from public view under state law earlier this month, in a move first responders hope will allow them greater access to information about dangerous materials passing through the state.
The new exemption to Maine’s Freedom of Access Act — the only new exemption to become law during the last legislative session — in June cleared a veto from Gov. Paul LePage, who wrote he believed any information in the hands of first responders should be public.
The railroad industry, however, has pushed for shielding for those shipments from public records, citing safety reasons and business confidentiality.
“Maine didn’t have the exclusion, and [railroads] just didn’t share the information,” Mike Shaw, an Amtrak employee and former lawmaker from Standish, said. “I figured that if it can be in the hands of [first responders] and I don’t know about it, it’s better than nobody knowing it at all.”
Shaw, the bill’s sponsor, resigned from the Legislature in August after moving to Freeport.
Jeffrey Cammack, executive director and legislative liaison for the Maine Fire Chiefs’ Association, said the issue of how to get that information from railroad companies is on the group’s upcoming agenda.
“What we’ve heard from the chiefs is that sometimes [a hazardous material shipment] is stored on the rails in their community and they don’t know it’s there,” Cammack said. “They hope to have some dialogue with the railroad companies just about how long it’s there and why it might be there.”
Cammack said first responders would be better able to prepare for a disaster, spill or derailment with that knowledge.
“The person in control of the product and the emergency responders will have a response plan,” Cammack said. “That’s what we look to gain.”
The highest concern, he said, has been about hazardous materials stored in a town at times for multiple days without emergency responders being alerted.
Shaw said he believed the American Association of Railroads helped with the language of the bill, which initially shielded such records when in the hands of first responders. In testimony, Shaw advocated for broadening that exemption to all state or local agencies.
Ed Greenberg, with the American Association of Railroads, could not confirm the association’s direct involvement in the bill language, but said the industry has general concerns about the security of shipments and proprietary business information.
“Whenever there is sensitive information in whatever level is made public, we believe it elevates security risks by making it easier for someone intent on causing harm,” Greenberg said.
Cammack said that’s not the biggest concern of the Maine Fire Chiefs’ Association.
“We know that for 99.9 percent of the people, that isn’t an issue,” Cammack said.
Nate Moulton, director of the Maine Department of Transportation’s Office of Freight and Business Services, said competition between railroads and other shippers also is a legitimate business concern.
“No. 1, do you want them or your trucking competitors to know how much you’re moving?” Moulton said. “If you’re a trucking company, you don’t post publicly what you’re moving and how much.”
The new exemption in Maine covers all types of hazardous materials that might be shipped by rail, which could include information about other shipments, including some chemicals delivered to paper mills.
The St. Lawrence and Atlantic Railroad, which runs from Portland to Quebec, was the only company that reported lobbying on the bill, in February. The railroad transports chemicals, forest products, brick and cement, food and agricultural feed products, and steel and scrap, according to its website.
The fight over that kind of shipment information ramped up in the wake of the Lac-Megantic, Quebec, explosion that killed 47 people in July 2013. Federal rules required new disclosures for regular, large shipments of crude oil from the Bakken Formation, beneath North Dakota, Montana and the Canadian provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
Read Brugger, an activist with 350 Maine who protested the transport of crude oil through the state, said shippers generally have sought greater secrecy about their cargo.
“Keeping secret what travels through our communities continues to be high priority for the shipping industry — be it by rail, truck or boat,” Brugger wrote in an email. “They rightly fear that releasing that information to an informed public would unleash a backlash that they could not control.”
Federal rules since May 2014 have required notification to state emergency responders about trains carrying 1 million or more gallons of that type of oil, a requirement that prompted railroad companies to seek nondisclosure agreements with several states over the information.
But any shipments, and especially any of that scale, are unlikely to roll through Maine any time soon. Only two trains carrying shipments of crude oil have come through Maine since the Lac-Megantic accident. Brugger noted the only shipments through Maine in recent years have been less than that amount.
Chop Hardenbergh, publisher and author of the trade newsletter Atlantic Northeast Rails and Ports, wrote in an email that such shipments by rail aren’t likely to pick up until oil prices do.
In addition, Irving’s New Brunswick refinery is not receiving any crude oil by rail and by 2020 could have access to TransCanada’s proposed Energy East pipeline, Hardenbergh wrote.
With a $37 million freight rail improvement project moving ahead after gaining federal funding earlier this week, Moulton said that likely will mean more freight traffic after its expected completion date of summer 2017. That stands to benefit the forest products industry and a booming market for propane shipped by rail, but as common carriers, rail shippers are subject to regional demands.
“They don’t get to pick and choose what they move,” Moulton said. “Any legal product they have to quote a rate and then they have to move it.”
About the new disclosure law, Moulton said there are competing priorities.
“It’s a balance, and hopefully we’re finding that balance so that we don’t upend the needs of the railroads and the shippers and we get the right information to the right people that may have to respond to an incident,” Moulton said.
Cammack said the Maine Fire Chiefs’ Association will meet Nov. 18 to address the issue of getting that information from railroad operators in the state.