On anniversary of train derailment, groups call for transparency, legislation on crude oil in Baltimore

Taylor Smith-Hams was living near the Mount Royal Station in Bolton Hill a year ago when her phone lit up one morning with messages from friends and family.

At the Howard Street Tunnel's north entrance nearby, 13 cars of a 124-car CSX Transportation freight train had derailed. All but one of the derailed cars were empty, but that one contained acetone, a highly flammable substance used in nail polish remover and paint thinner. Other cars on the train contained phenol, butane, liquefied petroleum gas, scrap iron and acid, officials said.

The notion of explosive substances — especially crude oil — traveling so close to her home shocked Smith-Hams, an organizer with Chesapeake Climate Action Network, a regional environmental advocacy group with 3,500 supporters in Baltimore.

"I was terrified about the potential devastation due to a derailment," she said. "Thankfully, there were no injuries or leaks and most of the cars that derailed were empty. But the incident begs the question: What if? What if that train had been carrying explosive crude oil?"

On the one-year anniversary Tuesday of the June 13, 2016, derailment, environmental advocates and concerned residents gathered at the Mount Royal Station to call on city, state and federal lawmakers to order the release of information about crude oil and other hazardous substances being hauled on freight trains through the city. The group is also pursuing legislation preventing any new crude oil train terminals from being built at the port of Baltimore, hoping to cut off demand for the substance to enter the city.

CSX meets or exceeds all federal regulations on shipping hazardous materials, CSX spokesman Rob Doolittle said, and the company uses a 27-factor routing analysis tool to determine the safest, most secure route for every shipment.

"Safety is CSX's highest priority, and that includes the safety of the communities where we operate, our customers and our employees," Doolittle said in a statement.

The amount of crude oil traveling around the country in rail tankers increased exponentially in recent years with a boom in domestic and Canadian production. While rail shipment is second only to pipelines in terms of safety, several explosive derailments of crude trains have stoked fears about the traffic and led to calls for more transparency.

Jennifer Kunze, Maryland organizer for Clean Water Action, an environmental group with 8,000 members in Baltimore, cited a train explosion that killed 47 people in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, in 2013 as evidence of the threat faced by those who live near the tracks. About 165,000 Baltimoreans live in what's known as the "blast zone" that could be affected by an explosion, she said.

Had the derailed train been carrying crude oil, Kunze said, "this derailment likely would've resulted in a fire or explosion that would've endangered MICA, the University of Baltimore, the Baltimore Symphony, the Light Rail tracks and Taylor's home, as well as countless other homes and businesses in the area."

Nine oil train derailments happened in the United States between February 2015 and June 2016, said David McClure, president and business agent of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1300, who called the oil trains "ticking time bombs rambling through our city."

"It's time to take immediate action to protect our communities," he said.

City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said she first wants the state to share information on oil shipments through the city — when they're coming, how frequently, how much, and where they're going.

While such information is not made public for security and proprietary reasons, it is shared with fire departments and other responding agencies in case of an incident, CSX's Doolittle said. A 24-hour emergency communications center is always on hand to provide aid, he said.

That's not enough for Clarke.

"What we need is good information. Knowledge is power," she said. "How many of these crude oil trains are coming through, and when are they coming through? ... This is a huge issue for us personally."

An earlier version misstated what the groups are calling for. The Sun regrets the error.

cmcampbell@baltsun.com

@cmcampbell6

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