By Curtis Tate
A Maryland judge rejected two rail carriers' arguments that oil train reports should be withheld from the public, ordering them released to McClatchy and other news organizations that sought them.
The ruling isn't the first time railroads have lost their bid to keep the oil train reports secret, but it is the first court decision recognizing the public's right to see them.
The U.S. Department of Transportation began requiring in May 2014 that railroads inform states of large shipments of crude oil after a series of derailments with spills, fires, explosions and evacuations. Since February, six more major oil train derailments have occurred in North America.
Nonetheless, some railroads have continued to press their case that the reports should be exempt from disclosure under state open records laws. Most states shared the documents anyway, and Pennsylvania and Texas did so after McClatchy appealed. Maryland is the only state that was taken to court after it said it would release the reports.
Norfolk Southern and CSX sued the Maryland Department of the Environment in July 2014 to stop the state agency from releasing the records to McClatchy and The Associated Press. They have until Sept. 4 to appeal the decision, issued Friday by Judge Lawrence Fletcher-Hill of the Circuit Court for Baltimore City.
Both companies, which transport crude oil to East Coast refineries concentrated in Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, said they would review the decision.
Dave Pidgeon, a spokesman for Norfolk Southern, said the company would "respond at the appropriate time and venue."
Melanie Cost, a spokeswoman for CSX, said the railroad "remains committed to safely moving these and all other shipments on its network."
In his 20-page opinion, Fletcher-Hill was not persuaded by arguments that releasing the oil train reports would harm the railroads' security and business interests. He also dismissed the relevance of the U.S. Department of Transportation's final rule addressing the safety of oil trains. The companies had argued that the final rule supported their claims.
He also ordered the companies to pay any open court costs. In a statement, Maryland Secretary of the Environment Ben Grumbles said the agency was pleased with the ruling and that it is "committed to transparency in government."
(c)2015 McClatchy Washington Bureau