Secret railroad inspection data frustrates Spokane officials

Railroads’ bridge inspection reports aren’t public documents, but a federal bill gave officials the right to request public versions last year.

The Associated Press

SPOKANE — Railroads appear to keep most data on their bridge inspections secret, even after a federal law allowed local officials to request the information.

Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart said he requested copies of Union Pacific and BNSF Railway bridge inspections, hoping to learn more about the condition of the infrastructure that supports trains carrying oil and other hazardous cargo through the city daily, reported The Spokesman Review.

Several of the city’s bridges show signs of aging and others are regularly hit by semi-trucks, according to Stuckart.

He said he was expecting an engineer’s analysis of the structures but only got a one-page report for each bridge.

“There was zero detail,” said Stuckart, who described the report as containing a check-marked box saying the bridge passed an inspection conducted by the railroad.

Railroads’ bridge inspection reports aren’t considered public documents, but a federal bill gave city and state officials the right to request public versions of the inspections last year.

Leaders in Milwaukee pushed for the bill after Canadian Pacific initially refused to release inspection reports for a corroded bridge used by oil trains.

There are about 77,000 private rail bridges nationally and eight federal employees who inspect them. Railroads are left to conduct their own inspections, with periodic audits by the Federal Railroad Administration.

BNSF is responsible for most of the oil train traffic through Spokane.

Spokeswoman Courtney Wallace said the company’s bridges are inspected at least twice a year, more than required by the federal government.

“We will not run trains over, on or through any infrastructure that we think is unsafe,” Wallace said.

Oil train safety has garnered attention in recent years. In 2013, 47 people were killed after a train derailed in Quebec. In June, the derailment of a Union-Pacific Train in Oregon resulted in a 42,000-gallon oil spill.

Rail safety advocates said the lack of access to reports, combined with railroads’ role in policing themselves, doesn’t inspire confidence.

“It’s tough when we simply have to take the industry’s word,” said Jerry White Jr., who leads the nonprofit Spokane Riverkeeper program, a citizen advocacy group for clean water.

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