In some Maryland railroad towns, crude oil is an open secret

The long tanker trains full of crude oil roll south from Pennsylvania about twice a day, along the banks of the Susquehanna River and through the heart of historic Port Deposit, gliding within feet of the VFW hall, the community basketball court, the library and a riverfront playground.

They continue to nearby Perryville, where they often stop along tracks between a residential neighborhood and a community garden, near an old white trestle with the town's name spelled out in brown lettering. There they wait, 100 tankers long, for clearance onto Amtrak's Northeast Corridor, which carries them onward toward refineries in Delaware.


"It's part of our day-to-day life," said Cathy McCardell, the assistant town administrator in Perryville, who works in the town hall building on the edge of the tracks.

Such crude oil shipments only began in recent years in Maryland amid a boom in domestic oil production, part of a global energy shift that's reducing gas prices and U.S. dependence on oil imports. The shipments are common knowledge in these towns despite the railroad's best attempts to veil its operations.


The little-detailed movements of the increasingly ubiquitous commodity became a hot-button issue after several high-profile derailments and explosions of crude trains, including one that devastated a small Canadian town, killing 47 people in 2013, and another this year that polluted the James River and caused the evacuation of downtown Lynchburg, Va.

In Baltimore, existing and proposed crude oil shipments to terminals in the Fairfield industrial area have become the subject of debate among community groups and criticism from environmental activists, despite efforts by local officials to allay concerns.

In Perryville and Port Deposit, and further east along the rail line in Elkton and other small towns, the shipments inspire less concern.

"Perryville has a lot of people who are very used to railroad activity and aren't quite as excitable as other people," said Alan Fox, a town commissioner and local historian who has written a book on the town's history. "It's oil. We're kind of weaning ourselves off the Arabian peninsula."


Officials at Norfolk Southern, the railroad handling the shipment though Cecil County, also point to dropping gas prices and the benefits of the domestic oil boom when asked about their involvement. But they'll say little about when, where and how the crude is moved.

Earlier this year, both Norfolk Southern and fellow railroad CSX sued the Maryland Department of the Environment to prevent the agency from disclosing information about their crude shipments. The Federal Railroad Administration started requiring railroads to disclose the information to state officials in May.

The records detail the volume, routes used and frequency of all trains carrying more than 1 million gallons of Bakken crude.

The railroads say the information is proprietary and would be a security risk if made public. Dave Pidgeon, a Norfolk Southern spokesman, said the railroad has a safe record and — as a common carrier — has an obligation to transport whatever products its customers want, including the volatile oil from the booming Bakken fields of North Dakota.

"We have the safe, efficient and reliable network that these customers need," he said.

Citing the cases, Maryland officials have not released the information requested by several media outlets including The Baltimore Sun, under the requirements of the Maryland Public Information Act. The cases are set to be negotiated in pretrial conferences in March, with trials in April.

Without the records, crude oil shipments in Maryland must be deduced using information publicly disclosed elsewhere, including by Pennsylvania and Amtrak. They also can be understood through conversations with local officials and residents, who regularly see the tanker trains roll past their homes and offices.

"We're not earthquakes, we're not tornadoes, we're not even floods, believe it or not," said Perryville Mayor Jim Eberhardt of possible threats to the town. "The biggest risk for us really would be a railroad disaster."

That realization came to Eberhardt before crude oil arrived, he said, and he's been working for years to ensure local first responders have hazardous materials training. In August, town personnel also participated in a regional exercise geared toward crude oil derailments.

"We're getting much more information on that particular product, but we've always received information on hazardous shipments, so the fact that railroads are telling us things is not a new type of communication for us," said Richard Brooks, chief of emergency services for Cecil County. "We know it's something that they're working with, we know they're making some modifications to their transportation system — that is their proprietary issue — but there's nothing that's a surprise for us."

Brooks, a member of the International Association of Fire Chiefs' hazardous materials committee, said he isn't aware of his department receiving any crude oil concerns from residents, nor does he consider crude oil a particularly worrisome commodity.

"Quite frankly, it's just another product," he said. "It is no more hazardous than gasoline. It is less hazardous, let's say, than a derailment of ammonia or chlorine."

An accidental collision of Norfolk Southern trains in 2005 released chlorine gas in the town of Graniteville, S.C., killing 10 people.

In an effort to reduce worries about the volatility of Bakken crude, regulators in North Dakota ordered producers earlier this month to begin filtering the oil to make it less explosive.

Still, environmental groups say concerns remain. Alison Prost, Maryland executive director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, pointed to the incident on the James River and said the group is "especially concerned when transportation routes are perilously close to waterways," such as the Susquehanna River.

"The Susquehanna is the major source of fresh water in the Bay. Any risk to it is a real threat to the Bay," Prost said in a statement. "At a time when we are working on restoring our waterways and the Bay, it makes no sense to be adding new threats."

Eberhardt said a couple Perryville residents have brought up crude oil to him, but not out of an abundance of concern. "They just wanted to make sure it was on our radar, and they seemed satisfied that we're doing what we can," he said.

"It's nice to know that there are people who are learning everything they can and who are in the emergency management field who are going to be the ones there knowing what to do" in case of an emergency, said Denise Breder, the town's administrator.

Norfolk Southern's Pidgeon said 99.998 percent of all rail shipments of hazardous materials nationwide occur without any problems, and the company is working to get even better.

"That's our responsibility to communities like Port Deposit and Perryville," he said. "It's a responsibility that we live with every day."


In addition to adopting new FRA standards for track maintenance, upgrades and speed limits on rail lines that carry crude oil, Norfolk Southern also is pushing its customers — which own most of the 92,000 tank cars it moves around the country — to replace or retrofit those cars to make them more difficult to pierce in a derailment.


Pidgeon said his father was the supervisor of the track that moves through Port Deposit and Perryville, and many of the company's 126 employees in Maryland today feel similar personal connections to the area and want to see it protected.

"These are our communities," he said.

On a recent afternoon, Emil Chicosky, 73, sat at the horseshoe bar of the Jerry Skrivanek Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 8185, a local watering hole just north of Port Deposit's center and just off the tracks.

For more than 40 years, Chicosky worked for the railroads out of Perryville, doing signal work. He vividly remembers the "heart-wrenching" 1987 Amtrak crash in Chase that killed 16 people. "That was my tragedy on the railroad," he said.

People who work the rail lines always are concerned about safety, Chicosky said, so crude oil doesn't give him much pause.

"I think they've really made a lot of advances for safety and the running of trains," he said. "What's the alternative?"

About 14 miles to the east, at Jim's Barber Shop in Elkton, several men chatted casually with their barbers and one another on a recent afternoon as scissors snipped around their heads, none too surprised when the issue of crude oil was raised.

"They're a lot safer than they were five, 10 years ago," said Paul Arbour, 71, a former refinery worker in Delaware City, Del., of the railroads and the newer tanker cars being phased in.

"Our country needs to get pipelines. There's no free lunch anymore. Everything's a trade off," said Robert Odle, 67. "You really can't be against everything. You have to be for something, and anything you pick has a downside."

Odle said he used to serve as the technical director of a hazardous waste metal recycling plant in Texas, and understands that sometimes, industry means risk.

"It's all relative," he said. "You drive around with gasoline in your car, and that's one of the most dangerous things around."


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