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BNSF Tankers (copy)

BNSF Railway uses tank cars like these shown a year ago on tracks near West O Street in Lincoln to carry oil through Nebraska and other states from the Bakken oil formation in North Dakota. The same kind of cars also carry ethanol. 

BNSF Railway more than tripled the number of trains it moved through Nebraska with a million gallons of oil or more aboard late last year and has changed its route to bypass Lincoln, at least for some trains.

Reports filed with the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency show that late last year BNSF expanded the number of oil trains it was required to report from three per week in July to a range of seven to 14 per week. Railroads must report trains that carry at least a million gallons of oil -- about 35 tank cars -- from the Bakken formation in North Dakota and Montana.

Last week, since the price of oil has continued to plummet even more, the railroad filed a new report that said it was moving about a dozen trains. BNSF says it must report changes of at least 10 percent of traffic.

A map filed with the documents shows changes from the 230-mile route the BNSF filed in July. 

The original route ran from South Sioux City in northeast Nebraska south through Fremont, Ashland, Waverly, Lincoln and on southeast to Rulo, where it crossed the Missouri River. In addition to the 11 Nebraska counties originally named, a new route filed late last year added Sarpy County.

Its map also added the BNSF branch that runs from Ashland east through Louisville to the new BNSF bridge at Plattsmouth, which leads to eastbound and southbound track on the Iowa side of the Missouri River.

Putting traffic eastbound over the Plattsmouth bridge allows the railroad to bypass Lincoln with oil trains. It appears to have done so, as some BNSF employees have reported fewer oil trains passing through Lincoln in recent weeks. Union Pacific has reported no oil trains in Nebraska reaching the reportable threshold. Documents never showed oil trains passing through Omaha. 

And the latest report to NEMA shows four to eight oil trains a week are eastbound and zero to four southbound, which suggests most are cutting over to Plattsmouth.

Under orders from the Transportation Department, railroads carrying oil have to report the details of their traffic to state emergency agencies, which share them with first responders. Nebraska officials originally declined to share that information with the public, but then decided to do so last summer after the federal government said it was no security risk.

The vastly expanded traffic of oil being shipped by rail in recent years has become a public safety issue, especially after an ill-secured train's shipment of Bakken oil caused an explosion and fire that killed 47 people in Quebec two years ago.

In related developments, members of Congress and some public advocates erupted last week after the Department of Transportation announced the agency would miss the Jan. 15 deadline set by Congress for new rules governing oil traffic on rails, and would issue final rules by May 12. That blown deadline had been expected.

Last week, four public interest groups requested records exchanged among five U.S. government agencies and nearly 100 oil and rail industry representatives on the development of new oil train safety standards.

“New oil train safety standards are decades late: the National Transportation Safety Board first called antiquated DOT-111 tank cars unsafe for hauling crude oil in 1991,” said Ross Hammond, ForestEthics U.S. campaigns director, in a news release. “But the administration seems to have trouble asking the oil and rail industry for common sense safety standards like speed limits, sharing information with firefighters, and a ban of the most dangerous cars.”

The Freedom of Information Act requests filed by ForestEthics, Communities for a Better Environment, Ezra Prentice Homes Tenants Association of Albany, New York, and Citizens Acting for Rail Safety name 97 lobbyists from the American Petroleum Institute, the Association of American Railroads and specific oil and rail companies, including Chevron, Tesoro and BNSF Railway. Among the lobbyists named are six former members of Congress, the nonprofits said.

“The public has the right to know how an army of lobbyists is influencing the Department of Transportation,” said Hammond. "Oil trains carrying millions of gallons of toxic, explosive crude oil threaten the 25 million Americans who live in the blast zone. DOT should listen their own safety experts and quickly finalize strong new standards that take DOT-111s off the tracks, slow these trains down, prepare first responders and protect families.”

Government agencies and officials covered by this FOIA request are the U.S. Department of Transportation, National Transportation Safety Board, Surface Transportation Board, Federal Railroad Administration, and Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7241 or at dpiersol@journalstar.com. Twitter@RichardPiersol

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