Do ‘Oil Bomb Trains‘ Chug By Your B’More Home or Business?

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Maryland may soon learn which train routes fracked oil trains use to transport oil to Axeon's Fairfield terminal.
Which train track do those oil trains use?

Though North Dakota’s fracking oil fields are 2,000 miles away, fracking is literally in your backyard. Railcars containing highly flammable fracked crude oil have been traveling into Baltimore City for two years. A judge recently ruled that the public will finally gain access to the reporting that details where the oil trains travel.

Looking at the Baltimore rail map above, regardless of which tracks are used, oil trains are weaving through critical business and residential areas. ForestEthics estimates 165,000 Baltimoreans live within a one-mile oil train blast zone. It’s vital to know that the oil being shipped into Baltimore is more flammable, and that there’ve been 14 crude oil train accidents in two years. Even though we’ll know the routes, it’s unclear that even if a fire event occurred, we could do anything except run.  Question: Who thought allowing flammable oil trains to rumble through a densely populated city was a good idea?

The public didn’t even know that crude oil trains were unloading Bakken Shale oil at Axeon’s shipping facility in the Fairfield Marine terminal (near harbor and 895). Until now. A Baltimore City judge recently ruled that Norfolk Southern and CSX must make public the crude oil train routes and quantities that both firms report to the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE). They didn’t want to. Based on the ruling, public reporting may be as early as September 4, unless the railways appeal. Curious to learn how close your home or business is to a potential blast zone? Click here

Here’s what you should know:

Today’s railroad oil tankers are more flammable

North Dakota’s oil boom took off in 2008 because fracking allowed access to the Bakken Shale. Since there are no pipelines (and refineries-this is key later), N.D. oil leaves the hinterlands on trains, rather than pipelines. The oil heads to shipping ports like Axeon’s right in the heart of Baltimore City. The oil is then transferred from trains to ships then on to refineries. Number crude train cars 2006: 5,000. In 2014: 500,000.  

If you live near a train track, the “no refineries” bit from above is important.

Unlike oil from Texas, North Dakota oil has more junk in it (gases and organic compounds) and this makes the oil more flammable. In short, the oil is not stabilized because of a lack of nearby refineries.  The federal government issued a safety alert in 2014 about Bakken crude on rail: “This means the materials pose significant fire risk if released from the package in an accident.”

Serious Crude Oil Accidents and Fatalities

Since North Dakota’s oil boom in 2008, there have been 14 oil train accidents, with 9 involving explosions. These aren’t little fires, either. Many of the crude oil rail accidents have occurred in rural areas with no injuries. But in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, 47 people were killed, the downtown area was flattened, and the crumpled oil tankers burned for days. Several bodies weren’t recovered; it’s assumed the bodies vaporized due to the intense heat of the oil fire. 

How would Baltimore City handle the intensity of a potential oil train explosion similar to Canada's which killed 47 people?
How would Baltimore City handle the intensity of a potential oil train explosion similar to Canada’s which killed 47 people?

Burning Rivers of Oil: Fred Millar, an independent train expert, explained that ‘oil bomb’ is not an accurate term, “The initial explosion and fireball of the stray gases found in Bakken oil is shocking, but quick. After the initial explosion, a crude oil fire event turns into burning rivers of oil that follow the geography at the train derailment site. If the tracks are on a hill, the burning oil flows down and ignites whatever is in its path.” 

Let it Burn: If a Bakken crude oil train derails and ignites, it’s not likely a fire department can extinguish the fire according to Millar.  The safer option is generally evacuation. I attended the July 8th Baltimore City Council oil bomb hearing. The Fire Department rep stated each employee has received about 2 hours of training, and that the city has foam on hand.  Yet, Millar said a major water source is needed to make the foam effective. “For foam to extinguish a fire effectively, the fire needs 97 percent water to 3 percent foam. You’d need a lake to be dumped on the fire,” he said.

Lack of Governmental Transparency and Regulations: Crude rail is regulated at the federal level. Maryland news outlets and environmental groups have worked hard to get basic oil train reporting. Both railways using Baltimore tracks to deliver oil to Axeon sued to not divulge the routes. According to Millar, crude oil rail is exempted from key federal railway regulations (’86 and ’90 Right-To-Know regulations and ’90 Oil Pollution Act) intended to give municipalities and the public vital information. 

This lack of transparency is what concerns Fred Millar the most. “There are four important rail company documents that I believe exist, but are not public. Worst Case Accident Scenarios, Value of Purchased Catastrophic Insurance, Comprehensive Emergency Response Plans, and Routing Analysis and Decisions,” he said. “This information would greatly help municipalities and local responders better understand the seriousness of potential risk, and better plan for disasters in an effort to save lives and property.”

Why are oil trains traveling through aging and dense urban areas? A second business, Targa Resources, has applied to transport crude through their Baltimore City facility. For now, MDE has placed their permit on hold. 

It’s hard to understand how anyone thought it was a responsible idea for oil trains to use densely populated and aging cities like Baltimore and Philadelphia as shipping gateways for unstabilized Bakken crude oil. In my opinion, oil and rail companies should have waited and developed crude-by-rail strategies that utilized safer ports. It would also have been nice if Uncle Sam had stepped in to make this happen.

Laurel Peltier
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Laurel Peltier

Laurel writes the environmental GreenLaurel column every other Thursday in the Baltimore Fishbowl. A graduate of UVA's MBA program, she spends her time with her family and making "all things green" interesting.
Laurel Peltier
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