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

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Oil trains deliver Bakken oil to Axeon's unloading facility out of the Fairfield Marine terminal. Rail lines illustrates possible routes the oil trains may take. (this graphic was adjusted to correctly identify Axeon's location as Fairfield Terminal, not Dundalk Marine terminal.)
Oil trains deliver Bakken oil to Axeon’s unloading facility at the Fairfield Marine terminal north of 895. Graphic illustrates possible rail road routes the oil trains may take through Baltimore City. (this graphic was adjusted to correctly identify Axeon’s location as Fairfield Terminal, not Dundalk Marine Terminal.)

In November, we wondered if fracking’s “oil bomb trains,” similar to ones that exploded in West Virginia, were rumbling through downtown Baltimore. At the time, no one knew the answer.  Recent Baltimore Sun reporting revealed that beginning in 2013, Axeon Specialty Products has shipped roughly 120 million gallons, or 4,000 railway cars, of the highly explosive North Dakota oil through their Fairfield Marine Terminal facility. If you live near a rail road track in Baltimore, it’s important to know why fracking’s oil is explosive, where the next shipping terminal is slated, and who is working to protect citizens living near Baltimore’s “oil blast zones.”

What are fracking “oil bomb” trains?

Fracking unlocked not only natural gas miles below in shale rock formations, but also gave oil and gas companies access to oil. North Dakota has been experiencing an oil boom since 2008 in their Bakken Shale fields. Today, North Dakota produces over 1 million barrels of oil a day! But there’s one little problem: There are no pipelines or refineries nearby. Bakken oil is shipped by train to coastal ports, and then shipped to refineries in Texas and Louisiana. Check out the graph below-don’t you wish you bought the railroad?

The Association of American Railroads provides data on the Bakken Shale rail road growth.
The Association of American Railroads provides data on the Bakken Shale railroad growth.

Kaboom: North Dakota’s Fracked Oil is Different

Since industry didn’t invest in building any North Dakota refineries, Bakken oil is highly flammable because it’s not “stabilized.” This means that the natural gases are not separated from the shale oil, as they are in Texas’ shale oil fields.

How flammable is North Dakota’s fracked oil? Reid Vapor Pressure (RVP) measures gasolines’s volatility, or the vapor pressure at 100°F. Normal crude has a RVP of 5-7 psi and gasoline is around 9. Bakken Shale is between 8-16 psi. If it’s stabilized, it would be 1.5.

To give an example of how explosive Bakken oil can be, you only need to look to the Lac-Mégantic, Quebec derailment. The oil bomb train explosion killed 47 people and flattened most of the downtown area. The explosion was so hot that several bodies were not recovered because they may have vaporized. Since fracking took off in 2008, there have been over 10 serious oil train accidents.  There is little first responders can do to contain the hot oil fires other than evacuate people from the area.

New federal rules were issued by the Department of Transportation on May 1, but the rules focus on train construction, brake type and train speeds. Updated rules don’t require oil to be stabilized, and also don’t insist on routes and oil quantity reporting. So, 500,000+ really explosive rail way cars will continue to rumble slower through our country’s cities, including Baltimore.

Bakken oil trains are rumbling through Baltimore today

Railroads are federally regulated and current regulations do not require railroad companies to report to Maryland when and what quantity of oil has been shipped. When Maryland’s Department of the Environment required this shipping data, both railroad firms, CSX and Norfolk Suffolk Corporation, sued Maryland to block this reporting. Legislation introduced in the 2015 Maryland General Assembly by Delegate Clarence Lam to force both railways to report oil data quantity, died in the Senate Finance Committee. So, it’s a bit of a guessing game to answer the who-what-when-where is the oil question, but here goes. 

Analyzing Baltimore’s train maps in relation to the Axeon oil shipping facility and Targa’s proposed oil shipping facility, many residents may find themselves living or working near potential oil train blast zones. Because the train routes used are not reported, Baltimore’s “Oil Blast Zone” is still unknown at this time. That seems to be critical information for city officials, first responders and citizens to know.  

Can we stop oil bomb trains in Baltimore?

It is unclear if any city or state government can change or stop oil trains from transporting across their jurisdictions because interstate railways are federally-regulated. Local bans may be a possibility in stopping oil trains. Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN) and Chesapeake Bay Foundation are two of the environmental groups actively educating and building citizen and business support to stop oil trains from entering Baltimore.

CCAN is hosting a rally on July 8th outside of City Hall prior to Baltimore City Council’s first-ever public hearing on the dangers of oil trains. Click here for information about the July 8th rally and City Council hearing. Baltimore’s CCAN rally will be one of hundreds of meetings around the country marking the two-year anniversary of the Lac-Mégantic, Quebec’s deadly derailment. 

City Council Vice-President Edward Reisinger (District 10) is hosting the July 8th informational session at City Hall with officials and first responders to better learn the risks associated with shipping crude oil through Baltimore. Both Axeon and Targa’s facilities are located in Baltimore City’s District 10. 

Author’s Note: Added on 6/26/15: To learn if your home or business is located within an oil train blast zone, visit EthicForest’s Oil Blast Zone

(This article has been corrected to identify Axeon’s facility as the Fairfield Marine Terminal, not the Dundalk Marine Terminal.)

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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7 COMMENTS

  1. This is excellent reporting. Many thanks for your diligence and details. I will share with my network of friends, far and wide. Let’s get the word out! I will also mention it to the FBI InfraGard who is worried about in-country terrorism.

  2. As follow-up, I just discovered a Oil Train Blast Zone website that allows people to search their address and determine if they are within the estimated blast zones for the trains carrying highly flammable crude oil, aka “bomb trains.” Check out the Baltimore Country route as well as the city. Frightening.

    • Cindy- Thank you for your comment, and you are so right about the Oil Blast web site. I have added in the Ethics Forest link so that readers can input their address and verify how close they live to the rail tracks. I believe at this point (speculation) that the crude oil trains are coming from the north, and not the south. There have been anecdotal reports from up north that oil trains have been spotted and the carrier is Norfolk Southern. I am concerned that very few officials (I have not found any) and citizens were made aware of Axeon’s transporting Bakken Shale for two years. Now that it’s public, more attention is being brought to the issue. I did call the mayor’s office repeatedly to verify if oil trains were traveling through downtown, and got no response.

  3. Laurel– Axeon is not within the Dundalk Marine Terminal. Dundalk Marine Terminal does not handle crude oil trains.

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