Armed with proof of oil shipments through downtown Baltimore, activists say they will press the issue

Repost from the Baltimore Sun

Armed with proof of oil shipments, activists say they will press the issue

By Natalie Sherman, September 10, 2015
An oil tank car
Signs indicate petroleum crude oil on train tank cars. While railroads have long carried hazardous materials through congested urban areas, cities are now scrambling to formulate emergency plans and to train firefighters amid the latest safety threat: a huge increase in crude shipments that critics say has put millions of people living or working near the tracks at heightened risk of derailment, fire and explosion. (Matt Rourke / Associated Press)

CSX Transportation said Thursday it still moves crude oil by train through Maryland via downtown Baltimore occasionally, but not as many as the five 1 million-gallon trains a week it estimated in documents released this week by the state.

Environmental groups and community activists said they hope the new disclosure about trains carrying the explosive crude though the city will spark public pressure and lead officials to act.

The state released documents on Wednesday in which CSX estimated it moves up to five trains a week, each carrying at least 1 million gallons of the volatile crude oil, through Baltimore City, as well as through eight Maryland counties.

The information, disclosed after CSX and Norfolk Southern lost a court battle to keep it private, is outdated, said Rob Doolittle, a spokesman for Jacksonville, Fla.-based CSX. The railroad has not moved trains carrying 1 million gallons of so-called Bakken crude — the volume that triggers federal reporting and disclosure requirements — through the Howard Street Tunnel since the third quarter of 2014, he said.

Trains carrying less than 1 million gallons continue to travel that route “on occasion,” he confirmed. He declined to be more specific about the amounts or frequency. It takes roughly 35 tank cars to carry a million gallons of crude.

“We consider information about the shipment of hazardous material to be security sensitive,” he said, adding that the firm does disclose the information to first responders and emergency officials.

“Safety is CSX’s highest priority,” he said. “We’re sensitive to this. Zero accidents is our goal and we believe we’re acting appropriately.”

The amount of crude oil traveling around the country in rail tankers increased exponentially in recent years with a boom in domestic and Canadian production. While rail shipment is one of the safest modes of transportation, accidents involving the volatile crude oil can be explosive, which has stoked fears about the traffic. A fiery 2013 derailment in a small Quebec town killed 47 and forced 2,000 to evacuate.

“We’ve seen these trains explode and we know that they pose a serious threat to Baltimore residents and business and other people who are just trying to go about their life in Baltimore,” said Anne Havemann, general counsel with the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

Advocates have estimated that about 165,000 Baltimore residents live within a 1 mile radius of train routes, making them vulnerable to explosions caused in potential derailments.

“This one affects everybody,” said Amy Sens, 38, who lives in Morrell Park and is a pastor at Six:Eight, a church in Hampden. “My hope is that a lot of people will become aware of this and realize that they’re affected personally and takes steps to make this situation safer than it currently is.”

The CSX route through Maryland described in the 2014 documents enters the state from Pennsylvania in Allegany County and travels into Washington County, dipping into West Virginia, through Harpers Ferry and back into Maryland, crossing Frederick County. It catches parts of Carroll and Howard counties, passing through Ellicott City along the same line where a rail defect caused a coal train to derail in 2012, killing two young women trespassing on a rail trestle.

After crossing into Baltimore County in the Patapsco Valley State Park, the line enters Southwest Baltimore, traveling up into the heart of the city, passing two blocks from the Horseshoe Casino Baltimore and right by M&T Bank Stadium before entering the Howard Street Tunnel just south of Camden Yards.

The 120-year-old tunnel, which follows Howard Street under downtown, was the scene of a six-day chemical fire after a train derailment in 2001. The line emerges at Mount Royal Station, crosses over the Jones Falls and skirts Remington before turning east in a below-grade cut along 26th Street, where a retaining wall collapsed onto the tracks after heavy rains in 2014.

The line bends through East Baltimore, passing neighborhoods, schools, cemeteries and industrial zones before turning northeast back into Baltimore County and through Harford and Cecil counties roughly parallel to U.S. 40.

CSX stopped shipping through Baltimore because it found a more efficient route to deliver the oil to its client, Doolittle said.

A CSX website shows that its principal crude oil route serving refineries in Philadelphia and New Jersey passes through Ohio, a bit of northern Pennsylvania and mostly New York before turning south.

While the railroad only occasionally moves crude through Maryland now, Doolittle said a new plan submitted to the state estimates it moves between zero and five weekly million-gallon crude trains along the route so it can comply with its requirements as a common carrier.

The Chesapeake Climate Action Network and other groups said even smaller amounts are cause for concern.

They have been trying to build support for a city ordinance that would impose a temporary ban on expansion of crude oil terminals. The City Council hosted a hearing on the issue this summer.

Brent Bolin, Chesapeake regional director at Clean Water Action, said the newly released documents give new urgency to the issue.

“Now that this information is out, it’s time to go back to the Baltimore City Council and say, ‘OK, great hearing. What do you think about this information?’ That’s our immediate next step,” he said.

City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said she supports the idea of a moratorium, but it’s not clear what the city can do because crude oil shipments cross state lines and are federally regulated.

“I definitely support a moratorium on the expansion of the facilities so that while we’re trying to cope with this problem, we’re not expanding the potential, but I have a lot to learn about this before I have any opinions about how to proceed except that it’s not a safe situation and we have to protect our citizens,” she said.

City Councilman Ed Reisinger, who hosted the hearing, said the city doesn’t want to impose rules against rail shipment that might lead to oil’s being sent through the city on trucks. He has asked CSX for more specific information, he said.

“If it’s one [rail] car I’m concerned, but … the reality is do we want to see one car on the tracks or do we want to see how many trucks driving through the city of Baltimore?” he said. “I just want some accurate information for what we’re really dealing with.”

Howard Libit, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, said it would be premature to take a position without a real ordinance on the table.

“Our understanding is that we’re very limited in what we can regulate,” he said. “What we can do is make sure our fire and emergency management folks work well with the railroads and are prepared for any contingency.”

Connor Scott, a spokesman for the city’s Office of Emergency Management, said the city has had a close relationship with CSX since the 2001 tunnel fire.

Staff at CSX have Fire Department radios, and the city, through state police, has access to a CSX system that shows the contents of rail shipments 24-7, he said.

The Fire Department and CSX have conducted training sessions on responding to a crude oil explosion.