A Victory for the Public’s Right to Know

In a reversal that highlights the power of public opinion, the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) is backtracking on a plan to stop receiving reports on hazardous materials shipments that it is supposed to be regulating.

According to an article published in The Oregonian earlier this week ODOT had planned “to stop asking railroads for annual reports showing where crude oil moves in the state… because The Oregonian successfully sought to have them made public.” In other words, because a newspaper successfully argues that Oregonians have a right to know about hazardous materials being shipped through our state the state agency charged with regulating that industry planned to stop collecting the reports – reports which are required by law.

At the risk of stating the obvious, hazardous materials shipments are inherently risky. The possibility of an Oregon industrial accident as a result of negligence or improper training or procedures anywhere along a long chain of suppliers and hundreds of miles of railway track is significant. That is why ODOT is supposed to be regulating hazardous materials shipments: to exercise government’s function as the people’s representative in the interests of public health and safety. After the backlash prompted by the announcement the newspaper quotes ODOT director Matt Garrett acknowledging “in an interview that ODOT needed to begin fulfilling its duty as the state’s rail safety regulator to protect Oregonians, not the companies it oversees.”
That is definitely an improvement, but further down in the newspaper’s report other unsettling details emerge. The paper notes that: “State law already requires railroads to notify firehouses across the state about the hazardous materials they have moved through their communities in the previous year. That hasn’t been happening. Three fire chiefs told The Oregonian they weren’t getting the notices but want them.” Earlier in the same article the paper notes that in 2013 “oil train shipments increased by 250 percent statewide.” In other words: the law only requires the railroads to tell local officials about hazardous materials moving through their communities after the fact – in some cases many months after the fact – and even these minimal, not terribly useful, standards are not being met. Fixing the law is a task for legislators. In the meantime, it is incumbent on the ODOT to make sure that local officials are at least getting the minimal information to which they are entitled.

As an Oregon industrial accident lawyer I have used this space frequently to argue that corporate responsibility is enormously important, but that many companies cannot be counted upon to do the right thing. Too often short-term thinking and a focus on this month’s bottom line get in the way of public welfare. That is why we have state and federal agencies and courts: to protect society at large. The media plays an important role in keeping public servants honest – and The Oregonian is to be commended for highlighting this issue. But regulating hazardous materials as they travel through our communities is, ultimately, the government’s job, not a newspaper’s. It is good to see ODOT acknowledging that, however belatedly.

The Oregonian: ODOT backs down from plan to limit disclosure of oil train shipments