Baltimore’s Chance to Stop the Next Big Oil Train Disaster

As Lac-Megantic Trials Proceed, Baltimore City Council Considers Bill to Stop Bomb Trains

 

On July 6, 2013, a freight train carrying 72 tank cars of crude oil derailed in the small town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec. Many of the town’s residents were gathered at a local bar for a birthday party when the runaway train barreled into downtown. When the train derailed at a sharp curve in the tracks, its highly flammable cargo exploded and wrought devastation.

The crude oil train explosion in Lac-Megantic killed 47 people, orphaned 27 children, destroyed 44 buildings, and left 160 people homeless.

That train was carrying crude oil from the Bakken Shale in North Dakota. Since the fracking boom took off in 2008, there has been a dramatic increase in crude-by-rail shipments in North America. The Bakken crude oil that is transported on these trains is more toxic and explosive than conventional oil. It contains a higher concentration of flammable methane and toxic fracking chemicals. Making matters worse, most of the train cars carrying this oil are outdated DOT-111s that were not designed to carry volatile material like crude oil. When these train cars puncture, they explode.

There have been dozens of crude oil train derailments over the past several years. While the incident in Lac-Megantic was by far the most devastating, communities across the continent have had to face oil spills, fires, and explosions due to crude oil trains. From Mosier, OR to Plainfield, IL to Lynchburg, VA, residents near rail lines live in danger.

Bakken crude oil has traveled through the heart of Baltimore City throughout the fracking boom. Between 2013-2014, over 100 million gallons of crude oil were shipped out of the Fairfield Peninsula in South Baltimore. According to the environmental group Stand, 165,000 Baltimoreans live in the “blast zone” of a potential derailment and explosion. I’m one of those 165,000.

Baltimore’s weak infrastructure is vulnerable, and we have had too many close calls with freight trains in the city. In 2001, a train derailed in the Howard Street tunnel and caused the infamous fire and water main break that effectively shut down the city for a week. In 2013, a coal train exploded in Rosedale that broke windows, shook nearby buildings, and slowed traffic throughout the region. In 2014, the retaining wall on 26th St collapsed, sending parked cars, streetlights, and large chunks of sidewalk onto the CSX tracks below. And in 2016, a train carrying acetone derailed inside the Howard Street Tunnel.

Thankfully, none of these incidents have resulted in the devastation and tragedy that Lac-Megantic faced. But crossing our fingers and hoping nothing bad ever happens is not a solution.

As the price of oil has plummeted, there has been a dramatic decrease in crude-by-rail shipments across the country. We need to ensure that when the next oil boom kicks off, Baltimore doesn’t become the next Lac-Megantic.

At last night’s City Council meeting, Councilmembers Mary Pat Clarke and Ed Reisinger introduced City Council Bill #17-0150 to prohibit the construction of new and the expansion of existing crude oil terminals in Baltimore City. This zoning ordinance will prevent an increase in crude oil train traffic in the city and send a strong signal that Baltimore does not want to be a hub for dangerous, polluting activity like crude oil train traffic. Instead, our city can be a leader in emerging clean energy industries like offshore wind manufacturing. This bill is also an opportunity for the Baltimore City Council to codify a piece of the Climate Resolution passed unanimously in June, which calls for the City to “limit the development and expansion of facilities that handle crude oil.”

This bill is being considered in the midst of the criminal trials in the Lac-Megantic disaster. Though it is clear that lax regulations and unsafe railroad management policies contributed to the tragedy there in 2013, railroad workers are facing exclusive blame for the incident. If the workers are convicted of criminal negligence, the reckless policies and lack of regulatory oversight that caused the disaster will not be changed. The conditions that led to the tragedy in Lac-Megantic will remain the norm across North America, continuing to put communities along rail lines in danger.

In Baltimore, we have an opportunity to make real progress in the fight against dangerous crude oil trains. Contact your City Councilmember and urge them to support the Crude Oil Terminal Prohibition (City Council Bill #17-0150) to protect Baltimore from becoming the next Lac-Megantic.