AUGUSTA — After nearly five months of silence on the subject, state environmental officials will resume releasing information about the passage of oil trains through Maine.

The change in policy follows consultations with the Attorney General’s Office on a law, enacted in October, that prevents state and local officials from divulging any information about rail shipments of hazardous materials through Maine.

Before the law took effect, the Department of Environmental Protection had provided summary data on crude oil shipments to the public. Environmental, health and safety advocates supported government transparency, claiming that public awareness of the shipments would enable communities to prepare for or respond to catastrophic events such as the runaway train explosion at Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, that killed 47 people in 2013.

But the railway industry had argued in Maine and nationally that information about oil and other hazardous materials they carried should be confidential, citing concerns that it could be used to undercut their business or to carry out acts of terrorism.

The Portland Press Herald reported in early December that the impact of the law was uncertain since virtually all oil shipments by rail had ceased over the previous year because of changing market forces. Refineries in Canada – the destination of oil transported via rail through Maine – were getting their crude shipments elsewhere and no longer needed Maine rail connections.

In February, the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting filed a request under the state’s open records act to examine the oil data. In response, DEP spokesman David Madore said the Attorney General’s Office concluded that the law does not prevent his agency from releasing summaries of the monthly crude oil volumes traveling by rail and the companies that transported it.

“We had decided to stop reporting the data until we had a better idea about what was permitted under the new law,” Madore said. “We didn’t want to go against its spirit or intent.”

The newly disclosed data show that no crude oil has passed through Maine in the months since the law went into effect. Irving Oil, which operates Canada’s largest oil refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick, last year said current market conditions favor receiving oil by tanker from overseas rather than by rail.

The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service based in Augusta.

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