Flammable Oil Trains in Baltimore: All The Risk With No Reward

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It's been three years since an oil train exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec killing 47 people.
It’s been three years since an oil train exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec killing 47 people.

Why are highly flammable crude oil trains continuing to travel through the heart of Baltimore?  Last month, another oil train exploded in Oregon, the thirteenth accident since 2013. June 13, on the same train tracks that oil trains travel in Baltimore, a 124-car train derailed near the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. A potential oil train explosion is the last thing our town needs. As Baltimore’s oil train story gains local press coverage, here’s what you need to know.

Backstory please: CBS Baltimore aired an excellent and in-depth Charm City oil train story.

“Gassy” fracked crude oil: Because of newer shale gas drilling called fracking, the U.S. also found lots of oil in North Dakota. Far from Texas and Louisiana refineries, there’s no way to pipe the oil south so the fix is to ship the fracked oil on 500,000 rail cars (up from 5,000) to shipping tankers in port cities. The problem is that fracked crude oil contains more stray gases and organic compounds making today’s crude oil more flammable. The federal government issued a safety alert in 2014 about N. Dakota’s crude on rail, stating, “This means the materials pose significant fire risk if released from the package in an accident.”

Baltimore ships fracked oil: Axeon Specialty Products, a New Jersey-based company, unloads fracked oil from trains onto ships in south Baltimore (see photo below). The major railway CSX transports crude oil to Axeon’s facility, but doesn’t share when, which tracks or how many oil cars travel through Baltimore. Railways are required to report how often trains carry 35+ cars of crude oil to Maryland emergency officials. According to Jennifer Kunze at Clean Water Action, state agencies claim they have not seen CSX oil train documentation since summer 2014. 

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B’more’s oil train blast zone: Looking at the Baltimore rail map above, regardless of which tracks are used, oil trains are weaving through critical business and residential areas. The non-profit Stand.earth estimates 165,000 Baltimoreans live within a one-mile oil train blast zone. Click here to learn if your home or business is within the potential blast zone

Kaboom. Lots of U.S. oil train accidents: Since fracking for oil took off in 2009, there have been 13 major explosive accidents, and many near misses. Check out this oil train explosion picture timeline. The most tragic was in July 2013 in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. Forty-seven 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. 

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 N. Dakota Bakken Shale 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.” 

Burn, baby, burn: If a fracked crude oil train derails and ignites, it’s not likely a fire department can extinguish the fire according to Millar.  Though Baltimore City Fire Department employees have received about 2 hours of training, and the city has foam on hand, 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.

Last month, oil trains exploded in Oregon closing two schools. Imagine explosions like this in the Holland Tunnel.
Last month, oil trains exploded in Oregon closing two schools. Imagine explosions like this in the Holland Tunnel.

Can we stop the trains? Here’s the rub: Interstate railways are federally-regulated.  It is unclear if any city or state government can change or stop oil trains from transporting across their jurisdictions. Maryland Department of the Environment did approved the permit for Axeon’s facility. Yet, MDE denied permits for a second Targa oil shipping facility in Baltimore. Local bans may be a possibility in stopping oil trains, but the Baltimore City Council has so far punted on taking up this topic. The City Council hosted an informational hearing in 2015.

The environmental groups Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN) and Clean Water Action, along with Maryland’s Delegate Clarence Lam are spearheading opposition to oil trains.  On June 6, activists and community members in partnership with CCAN and Clean Water Action brought 2,000 signed petitions to City Hall asking for a health and risk assessment. No one at City Hall would accept the petitions.

Chesapaek Climate Action Network, Clean Water Action and activists attempted to deliver Baltimore City Council 2,000 petitions asking for an oil train risk study.
Sponsored by Chesapeake Climate Action Network and Clean Water Action, community activists attempted to deliver Baltimore City Council 2,000 petitions asking for an oil train risk study.

Get creative, get active: 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 (Philadelphia, too) as shipping gateways for “gassy” N. Dakota crude oil.

The last thing that Baltimore needs now are pictures of an oil train explosion streaming across every TV in the world. As our city works to rebuild many communities, why put so many citizens in harm’s way. Especially when we know the risks ahead of time.

It’s time to get active and creative. Why is Baltimore, of all cities, taking on this risk? What is the reward? Think outside the box. Ask Axeon to discontinue shipping the oil from Fairfield Terminal?  Find permits that can halt the trains? Stand on the tracks! Call in favors from above? Do something before it’s too late.

You may be interested in reading:

Do Oil Bomb Trains Chug by Your Home or Business? 8/15

Where is Baltimore’s Oil Bomb Train Blast Zone? 6/15

Next Stop for Oil Trains: Baltimore 2/15

Laurel Peltier
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