Two years ago this month, on another freezing cold day, I walked out of my front door to greet a visitor from Quebec. Marilaine Savard lived in the small town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec in July 2013 when a runaway train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded. It killed 47 people, orphaned 27 children, and destroyed 44 buildings, leaving 160 people homeless. We walked less than two blocks from my front door to the train tracks, and she gasped: The train tracks curve around Westport just in the same way that they curved around Lac-Mégantic. Just like Lac-Mégantic, Westport is an isolated “town” surrounded by train tracks and water. We even have a tavern just a few yards from the train tracks, too—just like the one where Lac-Mégantic residents gathered for a birthday party were caught in a crude oil train explosion.
If new terminals are built for crude oil in Baltimore, residents of Westport would be sitting ducks just waiting for a disaster to occur. As the president of the Westport Neighborhood Association, I cannot let that happen. That’s why I will be testifying on Feb. 21 at City Hall in support of the Crude Oil Terminal Prohibition. Baltimore cannot afford the risk of becoming a hub for the oil industry. There are too many lives at stake.
When oil companies began fracking for crude oil in North Dakota in 2009, crude-by-rail traffic skyrocketed around the country. The crude oil that is transported on these trains is more explosive than conventional oil due to a higher concentration of flammable methane and toxic fracking chemicals mixed in with the crude. To make matters worse, most of the train cars carrying this oil have thin skins, no heat shields, and inadequate protections against punctures in a derailment. So when these train cars puncture, they often explode.
Crude oil trains have traveled through Maryland, right 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 old Fairfield neighborhood in South Baltimore. According to environmental group Stand.earth, 165,000 Baltimoreans live in the “blast zone” of a potential derailment and explosion—including every resident of Westport.
Baltimore’s infrastructure is old and 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 freight train exploded in Rosedale that broke windows, shook nearby buildings, and slowed traffic throughout the region. In 2014, the retaining wall on 26th Street collapsed, sending parked cars, streetlights, and large chunks of sidewalk onto the CSX tracks below. 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-Mégantic faced. But crossing our fingers and hoping nothing bad ever happens is not a solution.
Now is the time to put restrictions on crude oil trains. As the price of oil has plummeted, there has been a dramatic decrease in crude-by-rail shipments in Baltimore and across the country. We need to ensure that, when the next oil boom kicks off, Westport or any other impacted Baltimore neighborhood doesn’t become the next Lac-Mégantic.
The Crude Oil Terminal Prohibition prevents the construction of any new crude oil terminals and limits the existing two in the city from expanding. This will not entirely eliminate the threat of
crude-by-rail traffic in Baltimore because federal regulations preempt local regulations on rail; nothing the City can pass would—but it will prevent an increase in traffic and send a strong message that Baltimore does not want to be a hub for dangerous and polluting activity.
My neighbors and I in the lower South Baltimore neighborhoods need the City Council to give us their word and protect us from crude oil terminals from moving into our neighborhoods. I and other community leaders contribute countless hours of our personal time in order to dismantle the poor and industrially dangerous living conditions and environmental stresses that we have to live with.
We will no longer serve as the environmental and industrial “wasteland” for Baltimore City. We are looking to City Hall for leadership by moving this bill forward and ask council members of the Land Use & Transportation Committee to do the same.
Keisha Allen is president of the Westport Neighborhood Association. Find them on Twitter: @westport21230.