A national conservation group based in Arizona is suing the Federal Railroad Administration for refusing to disclose documents sought under the Freedom of Information Act after the agency allowed the nation's first experimental rail shipments of liquefied natural gas to occur in Alaska.
The Center for Biological Diversity, a group active in pursuing endangered species cases with federal agencies and the courts, said the railroad oversight agency failed to meet the group's request in February for information. The environmental group wants to know what factors and risks it considered before its decision in October 2015 permitting the Alaska Railroad Corp. to haul LNG.
The suit was filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.
The Alaska Railroad in September and October shipped liquefied natural gas in two 40-foot specialized tankers by flatcar from Anchorage to Fairbanks, part of a demonstration project to study whether the fuel can be shipped efficiently to help lower energy costs and reduce air pollution in Interior Alaska.
Proponents of the project have argued LNG is safer to ship than crude oil or gasoline — in part because the liquid is not easily combustible and quickly evaporates if it's spilled. The railroad said it took significant safety precautions before shipping LNG, including training for emergency response crews and more than 200 personnel along the route.
The LNG was moved in eight trips without any problems, said Tim Sullivan Jr., manager of external affairs for the Alaska Railroad. The railroad is still studying the potential benefits of regularly moving LNG to Fairbanks, said Sullivan.
"This is an environmental project in terms of getting cleaner air in Fairbanks," he said.
Natural gas would be a cleaner source of heat than the wood and stove oil often burned in the Interior that cause high levels of air pollution, officials have said. While natural gas, wood and stove oil all produce the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, a major contributor to global warming, wood and stove oil also create particulate pollution — smoke and smog.
Miyoko Sakashita, a senior attorney at the center, said explosions have occurred at LNG facilities in the past, including a blast in 2014 at a Williams Partners facility in Plymouth, Washington, that injured five people and caused $46 million in damage. The public should be worried about the agency's secrecy, she said.
"The public deserves to know the risks of shipping LNG by rail through Alaska's biggest cities and majestic wilderness," said Sakashita. "The federal government has an obligation to be transparent before approving or shipping a volatile fossil fuel."
A spokesperson with the railroad administration said on Monday the agency would not comment on pending litigation.