Secrecy by rail: PEMA says the public has no right to oil train info

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Although the democratic attitude of the age supports government openness and transparency, the first reflex of officialdom is often secrecy. The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, unfortunately, is no exception.

Last week, the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency denied the Post-Gazette’s requests for information that freight railroads provide about their shipments of crude oil through the state. As the PG’s Jon Schmitz reported, this was despite the fact that federal officials say no reasons exist to withhold the information.

Kevin Thompson, associate administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, said last month the information was not sensitive and did not need to be withheld for security reasons. Indeed, six states have made the reports public. Why can’t Pennsylvania?

It is not that this issue is of no public interest. On the contrary: In the last year, serious derailments of tanker trains have occurred in the United States or Canada. The worst was last July when a runaway oil train crashed in the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic, killing 47 people.

Pennsylvania has not been spared from train mishaps. In January, seven cars on an oil train derailed on a bridge over the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. In February, 21 cars derailed in Vandergrift. With oil tankers rolling past Station Square and on the bridge near the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, why can’t residents of Pittsburgh and the rest of the state be given the facts, such as how many oil trains pass through each county each week?

PEMA defers to the railroads who insist their reports are “confidential and proprietary.” That is outrageous. The agency exists to serve the people of Pennsylvania by saving lives and protecting property and the environment. It is not in the business of keeping secrets for railroads. If ever information should be made known to the public, this is it.

The agency’s director is Glenn Cannon, who was appointed by Gov. Tom Corbett in 2011. Mr. Cannon earned a good reputation in Allegheny County, in roles including county manager and Pittsburgh’s director of public safety. But his reputation and that of his boss both suffer here in turning their backs on the public’s right to know. Whose side are they on?


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