As domestic production of oil has increased in recent years, Billings, Montana, Correspondent Matthew Brown closely followed derailments of trains carrying volatile crude. A train from North Dakota jumped the track, exploded and killed 47 people in Canada in 2013. In Brown’s own state, a derailment near the town of Culbertson spilled 27,000 gallons of oil in 2015. Last year, Brown reported that more than 800 potential safety violations were discovered on Union Pacific freight lines after a fiery June 2016 oil train derailment in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge.
But Brown wanted to know how widespread the problem really was. By pushing repeatedly for public records and working with a longtime source, Brown was able to exclusively report the results of a two-year federal inspection program for the nation’s oil trains – and he revealed that some safety defects uncovered where similar to ones blamed in derailments that triggered huge fires or oil spills in Oregon, Virginia, Montana and elsewhere. For his AP NewsBreak, Brown wins this week’s Best of the States award.
During an interview with federal safety experts, Brown repeated his request for more detailed results, arguing the number of defects and violations meant little without specifics.
During a background interview with agency safety experts, Brown repeated his request for more detailed results, arguing the number of defects and violations meant little without specific problems. The safety experts came around to Brown’s position, which he believes led the railroad administration’s public affairs office to agree to turn over more detailed inspection results.
A member of the global environment team, Brown dug into the issue by seeking the findings of the federal inspection program launched after a series of oil train accidents. The Federal Railroad Administration at first would not release inspection results but finally agreed after repeated requests. Then the agency turned over a one-page summary giving only the number of defects found and violations recommended.
Officials provided a spreadsheet of the inspection results, showing almost 24,000 defects and 1,118 violation recommendations.
After several additional requests over a couple of weeks, Brown’s persistence paid off. Officials provided a spreadsheet of the inspection results, showing almost 24,000 defects and 1,118 violation recommendations. Rails were worn. Bolts holding track in place were broken, loose, even missing. There were cracks in steel bars joining sections of track.
With his own analysis and help from a former senior FRA official whom he had developed as a source, Brown determined that some problems found by inspectors were similar to ones implicated in earlier derailments. That revelation drove home a major point: that seemingly small problems, if undetected or unaddressed, can sometimes cause catastrophic accidents.
Brown’s hard-hitting, balanced and insightful story about this important safety and environmental issue landed on at least eight front pages. It was No. 2 on APMobile and was the second most downloaded on APNewsRoom. The story, accompanied by file photos of dramatic oil train accidents, played widely on major web sites, including the Washington Post, U.S. News and World Report, Houston Chronicle, San Francisco Chronicle, Miami Herald, Philadelphia Inquirer, Chicago Tribune and CNBC.
The story ran as Brown traveled to China for a three-month reporting stint, and he had his first byline from Beijing just days later. His AP NewsBreak wins this week's $300 Best of the States.