The “no oil train” coalition protested during Artscape 2017 – a venue right in the potential oil blast zone.

A dedicated group of Baltimore’s faith leaders, communities and environmentalists have been working hard to put the kibosh on highly flammable “oil bomb trains” entering Baltimore City. The Baltimore City Council will soon consider a creative local zoning law designed to seriously limit dangerous oil trains’ terminal expansion. Here’s why you should care and also some simple actions you can take to make your voice heard.

How Did Fracking Come to Baltimore?

You’ve heard of fracking for natural gas in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, but did you know that the practice also provided access to oil miles underground in North Dakota? Lots of oil.

Though fracking for oil takes place 1,600 miles from here, the fracking boom came to Baltimore in the form of flammable oil trains. At first, very few knew that from 2013 to 2015, at least 120 million gallons of flammable fracked oil from North Dakota was quietly shipped by train to the Axeon/NuStar plant on the Baltimore Harbor.

Upon arriving at the Curtis Bay facility, the oil was transferred into tanker ships headed for Louisiana, where it would be refined from crude oil into gasoline and fuels. Since railroad regulations are under federal purview, state and local governments have little say about what, when and how trains pass through their jurisdictions.

Because Axeon’s oil shipping terminal is right in the Baltimore Harbor, oil trains travel through the heart of the city, including via the Howard Street Tunnel.

So What? Answer: Kaboom

Once oil was flowing in North Dakota, two problems surfaced. Firstly, one million barrels of oil a day needed to travel from the hinterlands to oil refineries in Cajun country. Until the Dakota Access Pipeline opened in June, there were no pipelines. The solution has been to transport the oil by train to cities with ports, like Baltimore.

Secondly, another challenge in moving North Dakota oil is that it’s significantly more flammable. Compared to other oil fields, North Dakota oil contains more stray gases because they aren’t separated out before the material departs on train cars. The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety
Administration — the same government agency that approved this crazy scheme in the first place — even issued a safety alert in 2014 about North Dakota crude-on-rail.

Oil Train Accidents Got Deadly

The answer to getting North Dakota oil to refineries was trains. Crude-by-rail jumped from 5,000 cars in 2009 per year to 500,000 per year. Serious and deadly oil train accidents also increased. Thirteen major explosive accidents happened, along with with many near-misses.

What snapped people to attention was the tragic oil train derailment and explosion 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.

Oil train fires aren’t extinguished by local firefighters — the fires burn too hot. Several bodies weren’t recovered in Lac-Magantic; it’s assumed they vaporized due to the intense heat of the oil fire.

Independent train expert Fred Millar explained to me that if a fracked crude oil train derails and ignites, it’s not likely a fire department can extinguish the fire. Though Baltimore City Fire Department employees have received about two hours of training for such situations, 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 three percent foam. You’d need a lake to be dumped on the fire,” he said.

(Worth the time: HBO’s Vice News produced a must-see oil train episode laying out the issues across the United States.)

An oil train car in Seattle. If derailed and ignited, each car’s 30,000 gallons of crude oil explodes, then turns into burning rivers of oil that ignite everything in their path.

Burning Rivers of Oil for Baltimore? 

The Baltimore area’s risk is that crude oil trains don’t chug way out in the north forty. As you can see from the oil blast graphic above, oil trains venture right into the heart of the city to South Baltimore’s Curtis Bay.

Estimates are that Baltimore’s “oil blast zone,” encompasses about 165,000 people. Plus, the tracks oil trains use pass under, next to and near our town’s landmark tourist, sports and business sites.

As Millar explained “oil bomb” is not quite an accurate term — it’s more fluid than that.

“The initial explosion and fireball of the stray gases found in North Dakota Bakken Shale oil is shocking, but quick,” he said. “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.”

New Bill Aimed At Reducing Future Oil Trains

In 2016, no oil trains came through Baltimore.

With the U.S. now pumping lots of oil into the world supply, there’s too much oil, and per-barrel prices have plummeted from $120 in 2012 to $50 in 2017.  With U.S. oil competing against foreign oil, North Dakota has cut production, and therefore oil-by-rail has dropped 50 percent. Plus, the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline that sends North Dakota’s fracked oil southward began pumping oil this June.

This respite has given Baltimore’s community, faith-based and environmental groups time to strategize, organize and craft legislation designed to limit oil trains in Baltimore. Given that interstate railways are controlled by federal laws, one possible control lever is being considered: local zoning laws.

Led by Chesapeake Climate Action Network and Clean Water Action organizers, a strong faith-based, community and business “no oil train” coalition has mobilized.

With the support of a more mobilized oil train opposition, Baltimore City Council members Mary Pat Clarke and Edward Reisinger will introduce a bill this month that would limit the expansion of crude oil terminals through local zoning laws. Though Axeon/NuStar’s terminal is open, eliminating further oil shipments from Baltimore’s port may keep future oil train volume at bay.

“Crude oil trains can put thousands of people in neighborhoods, schools, businesses, and places of worship in danger, “ said Jennifer Kunze of the nonprofit Clean Water Action. “We know that crude oil was transferred in Baltimore during the peak of the drilling boom in North Dakota — and we’re lucky these shipments didn’t result in disaster as similar shipments did across the country.  Acting now to freeze our crude oil transfer capacity before any new terminals are proposed protects not only Baltimore City, but all of the communities along the rail lines linking us with North Dakota.”

Not only are oil trains dangerous, but they also promote fossil more fuel use and pollution.

“Crude-by-rail not only endangers public health and safety from the risk of explosions,” said Taylor Smith-Hams, a healthy communities organizer for Chesapeake Climate Action Network. “It also enables the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels that contribute to climate change, and threatens Baltimore with extreme weather, increased pollution and related respiratory illnesses.”

Take Action. Do Something.

  1. Find out if you or your family and friends live, work or play in the large potential oil blast zone by entering your zip code into this database.
  2. If you support Baltimore City legislation to freeze oil train capacity, tell your city council member with this easy online tool.
  3. Are you part of a faith-based congregation? Sign on to the growing list of local faith leaders urgently asking the city council to approve this legislation.

Check out Baltimore Fishbowl’s previous oil train reporting:

February 2015 — Next stop for Oil Bomb Trains: Baltimore?

June 2015 — Where is Baltimore’s ‘Oil Bomb’ Train Blast Zone?

August 2015 — Do ‘Oil Bomb Trains‘ Chug By Your B’More Home or Business?

July 2016 — Flammable Oil Trains in Baltimore: All The Risk With No Reward

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Laurel Peltier

Laurel Peltier writes the environment GreenLaurel column every Thursday in the Baltimore Fishbowl.