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City Weighs Options For Crude Oil Traveling By Rail

Christopher Connelly/WYPR
Mike Tidwell of environmental group Chesapeake Climate Action Network calls for an end to trains carrying crude oil through Baltimore at City Hall.

Huge amounts of crude oil are passing through Maryland every year by rail. A dramatic expansion of oil and gas production in the US has left drillers with a central question: How do you get the crude from the oil fields in the middle of the country to  refineries on the coasts. Railroads have been a big part of the answer, but some high-profile accidents have left many cities wondering if they’re at risk. On Wednesday, a panel of Baltimore City Councilmembers held a hearing to see what they could do.

Outside of City Hall, before the hearing, in the waning evening heat, about a hundred environmentalists gathered holding signs to mark the six times trains carrying crude oil crashed in North America since the beginning of the year.

Exactly how much oil is moving by rail through Maryland is not clear. The state collects that info from railroads – but CSX and Norfolk Southern, the state’s biggest rail  operators, sued to block the disclosure of that information. Only the oil that’s off-loaded in the state is publicly shared. State records show more than 57 million gallons of crude oil were transferred off of rail cars in Maryland last year. But just a few years ago, no crude was off-loaded in the state.

“There are a number of cities all over the country that are taking action in the face of this growing number of crude oil trains that are rolling through cities,” said Mike Tidwell from the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

Tidwell wants Baltimore to be on that list. He says more than 165,000 people in Baltimore are within a potential half-mile evacuation area of rail lines that carry crude. So Tidwell thinks the city should require railroad operators to disclose how much oil is being shipped through Baltimore, so the city can develop and plan adequately for a disaster.

"We are in a blast zone," Chesapeake Climate Action Network's Jon Kenney warned council members. "City Hall is in a blast zone."

“We certainly understand why people would have concerns about hazardous materials on trains that would be moving through high population areas. We have concerns too,” said Dave Pidgeon, a spokesman for Norfolk Southern railroad.

He says the rail line is investing huge sums to increase safety. CSX, in a statement, also outlined a number of safety initiatives. Pidgeon said that “99.97 percent of hazardous materials that are moved on the nation’s rail network make it to their destination safely,” and that there are no other viable options to get crude from the middle of the country where it’s produced to the refineries on the coasts.

Pidgeon says Norfolk Southern won’t disclose where or how much hazardous material it ships out of concern for national security – volatile oil makes a pretty target for terrorists. But that argument doesn’t fly for Fred Millar, an independent rail consultant. He told the councilmembers at the hearing that it’s not hard to figure out where crude is being transported.

“These are giant 90-ton tank cars that are coming through our communities on relatively slowly moving trains, on tracks that are very well known, clearly placarded on the side to tell you what’s in them,” Millar said. “They’re like elephants tiptoeing through the tulips.

Representatives from the city’s fire and emergency management departments said they had undergone training and planned for the possibility of an oil train exploding.

But aside from being prepared for an emergency, what exactly what can the city do to prevent one? The answer is not much. Victor Tervala from the city’s law department said railroads are governed by a maze of federal regulations, “so what we can do locally … is very limited. But we do have some controls.”

There’s a lot of gray area, but he said the city could at least get more information, and could probably regulate the terminals where the crude is off-loaded. The council members told him to look into how exactly they could put that into a law.

The Maryland General Assembly considered a measure that would have required the disclosure of the volume of crude oil traveling on Maryland rail lines. The bill, sponsored by Howard County Del. Clarence Lam, passed the House but failed in the Senate.

Christopher Connelly is a political reporter for WYPR, covering the day-to-day movement and machinations in Annapolis. He comes to WYPR from NPR, where he was a Joan B. Kroc Fellow, produced for weekend All Things Considered and worked as a rundown editor for All Things Considered. Chris has a master’s degree in journalism from UC Berkeley. He’s reported for KALW (San Francisco), KUSP (Santa Cruz, Calif.) and KJZZ (Phoenix), and worked at StoryCorps in Brooklyn, N.Y. He’s filed stories on a range of topics, from a shortage of dog blood in canine blood banks to heroin addicts in Tanzania. He got his start in public radio at WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio, when he was a student at Antioch College.