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As more details slowly emerge about the Feb. 3 train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, Americans are learning about the lackluster regulation of railroads in America. A portion of a second train derailed elsewhere in Ohio on Saturday.
Many politicians, from both parties, are now calling for stricter regulations of railroads and more transparency about the cargo they haul.
That’s a good thing. Here’s a seemingly simple place to start: Require more and fuller reporting of hazardous materials on railways so that first responders can be better prepared to respond to a crash or a derailment.
In Maine, railroads were successful in making this information less transparent.
In 2015, the Maine Legislature passed a law adding a new exemption to the state’s Freedom of Access Act, which shielded information about railroad cargo from the public record’s law.
Although the bill’s sponsor, then-Rep. Mike Shaw, D-Standish, said he was told the change was needed so that railroad companies that operate in Maine would share this information with first responders, there was no requirement that they actually provide that information to fire, police and other emergency departments.
The law change came two years after a runaway train carrying crude oil crashed and burned in Lac Megantic, Quebec, near the Maine border in 2013. Forty-seven people were killed.
Less than two weeks after that crash, Pan Am Railways, a train operator in Maine, asked the state to keep records of its oil shipments in Maine confidential, the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting (now the Maine Monitor) reported in 2016. The state attorney general said there was no legal basis to keep the information confidential.
The next year, an officer from the railway approached Shaw, who worked as a conductor for Amtrak, about keeping the information confidential. Shaw later introduced the bill that amended the state’s public information law to shield this information. At that time, railway officials said they needed to keep the information about their cargo confidential so their competitors couldn’t access it. Now, they say that providing the information so people would know what was on each train “would pose monumental safety hazards,” according to the Portland Press Herald.
To his credit, then-Gov. Paul LePage vetoed the bill, but his veto was overridden.
“I am not at all comfortable shielding this information from the Maine citizens that may be placed in harm’s way by these transports. If trains are carrying hazardous materials through our state and this information is shared with our first responders and emergency management entities, then this information needs to be available to our citizens,” LePage wrote in a June 2015 veto message.
Shaw has since said some of the information shielded by the law should be made public and that complete confidentiality was not his intention.
There are many changes, most of them at the federal level, that should be made to improve the safety of our railroads, for their workers and the communities they pass through.
Mandating that emergency services have quick and easy access to information about hazardous materials that trains are carrying is a needed first step. This will enable them to quickly and safely respond to accidents when they occur.
Federal action will be key. But revisiting the 2015 state law change is a good place to start as lawmakers in Maine consider ways to improve rail safety after the events in East Palestine.