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Is Baltimore safe from rail accidents?

Last month, a fire broke out at a scrap metal facility in Fairfield in South Baltimore ("Baltimore fire crews battle 'junk yard fire' in Fairfield area," March 24). The fire was across the street from a terminal which brings in crude oil by rail from the Midwest. How big was the risk that the fire could have spread to the terminal? How much crude oil, if any, was stored there at the time? Does the city or the state have a coordinated emergency evacuation plan? Has everything possible been done to minimize risks to people within a mile of the terminal and rail line?

This fire brings to mind the 2001 derailment and tunnel fire in Baltimore when a train carrying tripropylene, propylene glycol, glacial acetic acid, fluorosilic acid, hydrochloric acid, ethyl hexyl phthalate and pulpboard and paper products derailed and caught fire near Camden Yards. Temperatures in the tunnel reached 1,400 degrees. Had the train been carrying canisters of nuclear waste, they would have breached and spilled. Had the train been carrying crude oil, the explosion and fire would have been massive.

Crude oil from the Bakken Shale formation in North Dakota has been transported by rail for the past five years and is very flammable since it contains significant amounts of gases like propane and butane. A crude oil train derailed in July 2013 in Lac Megantic, Quebec, causing an explosion that resulted in 47 deaths and destroyed half of the town. These trains travel through Maryland to reach the terminal in Fairfield near last month's fire, putting communities across our state at risk.

It is estimated that 165,000 people in Baltimore live within one mile of CSX tracks, so there is reason to be concerned about hazardous and flammable cargo being transported through densely populated neighborhoods and venues like schools, stadiums, museums and hospitals. That is why citizens and some City Council members are working hard to find ways to protect Baltimoreans from this unnecessary risk which could also protect residents near facilities like the terminal in Fairfield.

The fire in Fairfield did not spread to tanks at the nearby terminal, nor were trains carrying crude oil passing by at the time. But it reminds us that storing and transporting hazardous material in populated areas like Baltimore carries serious risks. We need to evaluate those risks so that changes can be made to improve public health and safety for everyone who lives, goes to school and works near the tracks and terminal.

Gwen DuBois, Baltimore

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