A Baltimore City Circuit Court judge has ruled that the information railroads submit to the state about the volume and frequency of their crude oil shipments is public.
The decision Friday rejects efforts by CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern Railway, the two major eastern railroads, to block the Maryland Department of the Environment from releasing the information, which includes rail routes, an estimate of the number of trains expected to travel through each county, a description of the oil, and emergency response contacts.
MDE Secretary Ben Grumbles and state Attorney General Brian E. Frosh each said in separate statements that they were pleased by the decisions.
"We strongly believe that this kind of information — the transport of millions of gallons of toxic material — should be open to the public," Frosh said.
Environmental groups called the rulings in the two cases wins for residents and communities that had been concerned about the shipments, which have increased as production of crude oil has boomed in North Dakota and Canadian oil fields in recent years, overwhelming pipeline capacities.
While rail shipment is one of the safest modes of transportation, accidents involving the volatile crude oil can be explosive. In 2013, a derailment and explosion devastated a small Canadian town in Quebec, killing 47 people. Another last year polluted the James River and forced the evacuation of downtown Lynchburg, Va.
"This is a significant victory for transparency and for Maryland residents living along the path of oil trains," Anne Havemann, general counsel for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said in a statement. "Shedding light on the risks is the first step toward stronger state and local action to safeguard our communities."
The federal government has required companies shipping large quantities of so-called Bakken crude oil to notify state emergency officials about the traffic since May 2014, instituting the order after several rail accidents involving the highly flammable fuel. The Department of Transportation issued a final rule this year, which also enhanced braking and reduced operating speeds.
Both CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern bring trainloads of crude oil into Maryland, including to a barge terminal in South Baltimore's Fairfield area and through small towns in Cecil County en route to refineries in Delaware.
But the scope of their activities is not fully known.
After the 2014 order, the companies asked the Maryland Department of the Environment not to release their documents to the public. MDE initially agreed, but when several news outlets filed requests under the state's public information act, the department told the companies that nondisclosure agreements had been signed in error.
CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern Railway each subsequently filed suit, arguing that the information provided to the state should be exempt from public release. In July 2014 suits, they said the documents contained confidential commercial information that could raise security risks if disclosed.
Judge Lawrence P. Fletcher-Hill noted that much of the information is already public. He wrote that the documents in question failed to qualify for exemption because "there is no likelihood that disclosure … would cause substantial competitive harm."
MDE had agreed not to release the information amid the litigation. Friday's ruling would go into effect Sept. 4, giving the railroads time to appeal.
CSX and Norfolk Southern declined to say whether they intend to do so.
CSX spokeswoman Melanie Cost said the firm "will review the decision and remains committed to safely moving these and all other shipments on its network."
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Norfolk Southern spokesman David Pidegon wrote that the railroad is reviewing the decision and "will respond at the appropriate time and venue."
Marc A. Campsen, an attorney with Baltimore-based Wright, Constable & Skeen who is representing both companies, declined to comment.
Advocates have estimated that about 165,000 Baltimore residents live within a 1-mile radius of train routes, making them vulnerable to explosions caused in potential derailments. They say a derailment also could contaminate waterways and wildlife habitats.
A Houston company had sought permission to ship crude oil through its port of Baltimore terminal in Fairfield, but MDE said in June it needed more information before granting permission. A spokesman for the company, Targa Resources, did not respond to a request for comment.
Last month, the Baltimore City Council hosted a two-hour hearing about the safety of crude oil shipments and the preparations for potential accidents.
"Baltimore residents living near rail lines want to know what is being transported through their communities," Leah Kelly, an attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project, said in a statement. "This important decision affirms that they have a right to that information when it comes to shipments of volatile Bakken crude oil."