Railroads, including Union Pacific that runs through Umatilla and Morrow County, have been ordered to release information on the chemistry and frequency of oil freight to local emergency responders. It’s a welcome decision, but state governments are still debating just who should be privy to that information.

Recent disasters underscore the danger of shipping oil via train. In Quebec, 42 people were killed after a train carrying North Dakota crude derailed, exploded and nearly leveled a small town. Another derailment near Virginia caused hundreds of people to be evacuated from the area after 30,000 gallons leaked into a river and caught fire.

In response, the federal Department of Transportation issued an emergency order in May that required railroads to notify local emergency responders whenever oil shipments traveled through their states, including detailed information about the number of oil trains each week and specific routes the trains will travel.

They had previously been under no obligation to disclose any of that information.

The order said the number of recent accidents “is startling, and the quantity of petroleum crude oil spilled as a result of those accidents is voluminous.”

Other government officials are startled as well.

“I want to know how much oil will be shipped through my state and how we can be assured the kind of tragedy that happened in Quebec won’t devastate families in our communities,” said Washington Governor Jay Inslee last week.

Oregon governor John Kitzhaber said he has “deep concern” over the safety of oil trains. He wrote a letter to the Department of Transportation asking them to speed up the release of their report and to enact stricter regulation.

We see the need for regulation and we also see the need for information.

We hope state, federal and railroad officials realize the benefit timely and true data can be.

The basics — what actually is in those oil cars, where those trains go, how much flammable liquid they are carrying and how often they travel — is necessary information emergency responders need to prepare for a disaster and to respond to one.

It may not be necessary, but it sure could prove helpful, if that same information was distributed widely to local governments, residents and businesses located near the tracks, and to media who can spread the word and make sure people are prepared.

In a post 9/11 world, we are all cognizant of the threat of terrorism. Yes, that information could be dangerous in the wrong hands. But the truth is: it’s dangerous now. Those trains are already barreling down thousands of miles of unsecured tracks. Crashes and derailments have already claimed lives, polluted drinking water, impacted transportation routes and caused environmental harm.

We are the ones putting our safety at risk, unless we impose stricter regulation — safer rail cars, improved brake systems, reduced speed limits and increased number of on-train employees — and give the public access to such critical information.

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