Screencap courtesy The Real News Network

Five years ago, a crude oil train derailed in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec and the resulting fire killed 47 people. And this week, City Council encouraged by environmental activists, voted to advance a bill—Bill 17-0150—that would help avoid such a disaster in Baltimore.

Because railroad transport is entirely in the hands of the federal government, the bill seeks to prevent oil terminals the only way it can: by changing zoning codes so that the two crude oil terminals currently in Baltimore cannot expand and no new ones can be built.

Before a hearing about the bill on Feb. 21, many environmentalists gathered in front of City Hall on an in support of the bill.

“There are two terminals that are currently permitted to ship crude oil. They would be grandfathered in under this bill. They just would not be allowed to expand,” said Taylor Smith-Hams of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network said. “This bill would put crude oil terminals into our prohibited use category of our zoning code, and that’s what happens when you become a prohibited use and you’re already in existence, is you just, you can’t expand your operations,”

The bill’s chief sponsor, Mary Pat Clarke and co-sponsor, Ed Reisinger joined activists outside.

“We have companies like CSX and other businesses, they’re looking through the lens of profit, and not the people’s public safety,” Reisinger said.

“If we limit any expansion or new terminals for crude, we begin to diminish the future traffic through and in Baltimore City,” said Clarke.

Activists say some 165,000 residents live in the blast zone—or the area near the tracks where crude oil is shipped that will be affected by an explosion. Keisha Allen, the president of the Westport Neighborhood Association, stressed that its communities like her own that are put at-risk by crude oil terminals.

“The people who are most affected…are already marginalized communities,” Allen said.

In an op-ed by Allen posted on the Beat’s website, she provided a list of train accidents in Baltimore over the past 18 years: the 2001 train derailment in the Howard St. tunnel which caused a fire and water main break; the 2013 Rosedale train explosion; the 2014 retaining wall collapse on 26th Street which affected the railroad below; and a 2016 derailment of a train in the Howard St. tunnel carrying acetone.”

Allen also wrote of the specific problems with crude oil transports: “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.”

Advocates who testified at City Hall stressed that crude oil train terminals pose dangers to public health.

“When workers and residents are exposed to the chemicals in crude oil, they can have prolonged respiratory symptoms years after the spill, liver and blood disorders, and even lung cancer,” said Laalitha Surapaneni of Physicians For Social Responsibility.

Councilperson Eric Costello, who opposes the bill said that crude oil is being singled out and provided a slippery slope argument: “Tomorrow it will be jet fuel. On Friday it will be gasoline. Saturday, chlorine. Maybe by Monday we’ll ban sugar,” Costello said.

Activists agreed that other commodities can be harmful, but as Sauleh Siddiqui of Johns Hopkins University Department of Engineering said those products were significantly more regulated: “We know a lot more about them than we know about crude oil, and crude oil is actually the problem here,” he testified.

Valerie Hall, a retired firefighter and resident of Mount Winans, fears firefighters are not properly trained to handle crude oil fires. She found out that there’s not a single hazmat-trained fire fighting unit in all of South Baltimore.

“If we had a derailment, or an explosion of crude oil in South Baltimore on any given one of those five train tracks, it would be catastrophic,” Hall told council.

Opponents fear that the ban will send the wrong message to people conducting business in Baltimore. In his testimony, Jermaine Jones of the AFL-CIO asked, “what message are we sending then to the port when we, by zoning, prohibit this crude oil from happening?”

But Councilperson Mary Pat Clarke says that now is the time to act. She says with oil prices low, there are likely fewer shipments of crude oil taking place within the United States, so “we’re not costing any jobs.”We’re not taking away anything that exists,” she said, “but we don’t want to become a crude oil hub.

The bill passed second reader 14-1. Councilperson Costello who voted no to the ban explained his vote to council and reflected the critiques Clark intended to counter: “By enacting this ban we are further damaging the port’s ability to be competitive. Not only on the Eastern seaboard, but throughout the nation and internationally,” Costello said.

Taylor Smith-Hams  said that by advancing the bill, Baltimore is  “also making sure that we are using our resources strategically and with a long-term vision to be a leader in sustainable development and renewable energy.”

Baltimore is “making sure that we are the clean energy powerhouse that we are capable of being, and not locking ourselves into the economy of the past by building out more fossil fuel infrastructure,” Smith-Hams said.

The bill will go to third reader and then the mayor’s desk in the coming weeks.

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