David Flores first spotted the red diamond placards — numbered to designate crude oil shipments — about two weeks ago on a long line of rail cars idling on a trestle over Interstate 695, near Hollins Ferry Road in Baltimore County.
"I don't know at this point whether or not those cars were filled and headed to a facility in Baltimore, or if they were empty cars that were just passing through," said Flores, the harbor waterkeeper for Blue Water Baltimore, a nonprofit that advocates for clean waterways.
Nevertheless, Flores shot video of the train to document its presence in the area — something he said public officials and railroad executives have refused to do.
"There's a legitimate concern about public access to information," he said, "about just what's being transported through our cities."
While the railroads and city officials insist the transport of crude oil is safe, a growing number of environmentalists in Baltimore have stepped up their efforts in recent weeks to confront the growing threat they believe crude oil poses to local residents, waterways and wildlife habitats.
The Chesapeake Climate Action Network has hosted two town hall meetings — including one held Tuesday night in Charles Village — to spark public debate on a pending application by a Houston-based company to begin shipping millions of gallons of crude oil into South Baltimore by rail, where it would be loaded onto barges for shipment to refineries.
Officials at the Environmental Integrity Project have asked for a public hearing on the application, which already has received preliminary approval. Officials from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation have called on the Coast Guard to assess the potential impact of such crude oil barges on the fragile Chesapeake Bay ecosystem.
The groups also have joined several media companies — including The Baltimore Sun — in demanding that public officials and railroad executives disclose more information about crude oil shipments in the state.
"Communities have a right to know what kind of oil is going through their towns and neighborhoods, and what the safety implications are," said Jon Kenney, Maryland community organizer for the climate action network. "I would like to know if the city has looked at this kind of information and if there is a plan in place, considering the potential increase in volume of crude oil through the city."
Such concerns have become a hot-button issue across the country in recent years. A new supply of crude oil coming out of Bakken shale fields of North Dakota and the Canadian oil sands has spurred a boom in domestic production and transport, but also raised serious concerns about the oil's volatility following several disasters.
The derailment of a train carrying Bakken crude in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, in July 2013, for example, caused a massive explosion and fire, killed 47 people, forced some 2,000 people to evacuate their homes, leaked 6 million liters, or almost 1.6 million gallons, of crude oil and destroyed much of the town's downtown area. Another derailment of a train carrying Bakken crude in Lynchburg, Va., in April caused an explosion and an evacuation of parts of the town and spilled thousands of gallons of crude into the James River, but no one was injured.
In February, the railroad industry agreed with U.S. and Canadian regulators to improve braking, inspect tracks more frequently and reduce speeds on trains carrying crude. The U.S. Department of Transportation also launched efforts to tighten restrictions on trains hauling crude for long distances, which are increasingly common.
In May, the federal government required railroads to report all shipments of more than 1 million gallons of Bakken crude to emergency officials in the states those shipments pass through.
Still, environmentalists and other community advocates in Baltimore say information remains hard to come by, is withheld purposefully or is obscured for questionable reasons — leaving them to guess whether nearby train tracks carry crude.
"I'm trying to get as many facts as I can about this situation," said Joan Floyd, president of the Remington Neighborhood Alliance, who has heard rumors that crude oil trains pass through her neighborhood but isn't sure. "We don't know enough."
That's partly by design.
This summer, two major Eastern railroads filed lawsuits against the Maryland Department of the Environment to prevent it from releasing to news media outlets the data it had collected on their crude shipment routes and volumes in the state under the new federal reporting requirement.
Both Norfolk Southern Railway and CSX Transportation say they were promised the data would be protected as proprietary information. When the department notified the railroads that it would be releasing the information to reporters with McClatchy and the Associated Press, the railroads took the issue to court.
The cases are pending, and an MDE spokesman said the department would not release the information to McClatchy or the Associated Press — or meet a separate Public Information Act request from The Baltimore Sun — until the litigation is resolved.
A Norfolk Southern spokesman declined to comment on the litigation or the company's crude oil routes in the state. A CSX spokesman said the railroad "continues to pursue the case," but did not provide specifics.
Both companies have argued that disclosure of their routes would present security concerns and compromise commercial trade secrets. Pretrial conferences in both cases are scheduled for March, with trials in April.
CSX acknowledged Tuesday that it does not transport crude oil through the Howard Street Tunnel, which passes under downtown, a worry of some residents. A CSX chemical train derailed in the tunnel in 2001 and burned for days. The railroad did say that empty oil tank cars are moved along that line.
But little else is known about movements of crude oil in the city other than that it moves through South Baltimore.
Axeon Specialty Products, a San Antonio-based asphalt refining company, brings crude to the Patapsco River terminal of NuStar Energy, another San Antonio firm, where it is loaded onto barges near the Harbor Tunnel Thruway on Interstate 895.
The company moved tens of millions of gallons through the terminal last fiscal year, according to the MDE. A spokeswoman said Axeon is moving Canadian crude oil in Maryland, not Bakken, but would not disclose details.
Earlier this year, Houston-based Targa Resources applied to the Maryland Department of the Environment for an air emissions permit and permission to add storage capacity for at least 12.6 million gallons of crude to start a similar rail-to-barge operation at its adjacent Fairfield terminal.
In Targa's application, it said it plans to handle different types of crude oil, including highly pressurized types like Bakken crude, though it did not mention Bakken by name.
Targa CEO Joe Bob Perkins has declined to comment beyond the application filing. The company purchased the Fairfield terminal, previously owned by Chevron, in 2011.
MDE spokesman Jay Apperson said Targa's application has received preliminary approval, but the public comment period has been extended by 60 days, until Jan. 7, at the request of the Environmental Integrity Project and the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.
Both groups also requested a public hearing on the matter, which is scheduled for 6 p.m. Dec. 1 at the Brooklyn branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library.
In the meantime, Kenney's group has begun hosting town halls on the matter, including Tuesday's in Charles Village, and hopes to stir up enough opposition to get the attention of city leaders.
A previous meeting was held in Morrell Park, where residents were recently successful in opposing a CSX cargo transfer facility that had high-level political support before they spoke out.
Kenney said he sees their story as proof that communities "can and have fought against industry and won."
Kevin Harris, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, would not answer questions about specific crude oil routes through the city, but in a statement said "it is not realistic to route crude oil around the city."
He said the city manages "many hazardous materials" in a safe manner and is prepared to respond should an emergency arise.
Harris also said Rawlings-Blake's administration is in "constant communication" with CSX, and that members of the Mayor's Office of Emergency Management attended an "extensive briefing from CSX" last month on railroad safety measures and "mitigation tactics" during an emergency.
"The mayor's goal is to ensure that any materials being transported are in accordance with the highest federal, state and local standards, and in the event where we ever feel that is not the case, she will not hesitate to hold people accountable," Harris said.
Floyd, a veteran activist in the city, said she wishes there was more transparency in the process so she could make up her own mind whether to be concerned.
"There's this information void," she said, "and an information void can frankly be exploited."