Oil trains are the public’s business

GUEST OPINION

USUALLY WHEN WE WRITE about open government, it is to note another case of officials keeping the public in the dark.

Today, we write instead to cheer state officials who defended the public’s right to know.

Railroads haul oil, and they don’t want people to know how much and where. The federal government said that was unacceptable. Genuine risks are associated with volatile shipments.

First responders need to know where they might have to act. Residents and local governments deserve an opportunity to hold frank, informed discussions about whether they want those trains passing through their communities.

The federal government ordered the railroads to inform states about large shipments of some of the most explosive oil. Whenever a train hauls more than 1 million gallons of crude from the Bakken region of North Dakota, Montana and Canada, railroads may no longer keep the routes secret.

Bakken oil has been involved in a rash of accidents lately. Trains hauling it exploded in North Dakota, Alabama, Virginia and Quebec. Four dozen people died in the Quebec incident.

When railroads _or anyone else _file a report with the state, it usually becomes a public record. That bothered the railroads. They generally don’t like drawing attention to shipments that are explosive both literally and figuratively. Oil is a political hot button.

So they asked states to sign non-disclosure agreements before they received the federally mandated information.

A few states acquiesced, and a few more continue to waffle.

Wisconsin told the railroads to take a hike. Officials with the State Emergency Management division will not ignore open records law simply because disclosure makes railroads uncomfortable. If the railroads don’t like it, they can start paying costly fines for ignoring a federal order.

Open government laws are a cornerstone of accountability and an informed electorate, but they are only as strong as the officials who abide by them. In this case, the public good won over corporate pressure.

Thanks to state Emergency Management division, public good beat corporate pressure.

Wisconsin State Journal

At issue:
Open government
Bottom line:
State didn’t get railroaded


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