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Environmentalists to rally in support of Baltimore council bill banning construction of oil terminals

Railroad tank cars, like these in a Delaware storage yard, carry volatile crude oil across the country and sometimes through Maryland.
Railroad tank cars, like these in a Delaware storage yard, carry volatile crude oil across the country and sometimes through Maryland. (Curtis Tate / MCT)

Environmental groups plan to rally in front of Baltimore City Hall on Wednesday as the City Council takes up a bill that would ban the construction of crude oil terminals as part of an ongoing effort to limit the number of oil trains passing through the city.

The groups say the trains are dangerous — they have derailed and exploded elsewhere — and that about 165,000 people in Baltimore would face evacuation if an accident did occur. But since only federal authorities can regulate rail transport, the city has looked for other ways to address them.

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The bill would change the zoning code to ban the construction of new crude oil terminals and stop two existing terminals in the city from expanding in any way.

Information about the train shipments is carefully guarded by the rail companies, so it’s hard to be certain how much oil passes through Baltimore. CSX says it has never sent dedicated oil trains through the city, but state records show at least some oil has traveled on tracks through Baltimore in the past.

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Environmental groups and community activists said Thursday they hope recently released documents proving that CSX is moving explosive oil through downtown Baltimore will spark public pressure and lead to action on the part of officials — though in what form it's still not clear.

With the price of oil low, the activists think there are few shipments now. But Jennifer Kunze, an activist with Clean Water Action, said things could easily change.

“With the Trump administration in power we could see increased domestic drilling,” she said. “Now is the time for Baltimore to act before those threats are real and present.”

Activists say they expect to have dozens of people show up for the rally. They plan to display a model of an oil train, a jar of crude oil and a map showing the parts of the city where people might be affected by an accident.

Kunze said imposing limits on the terminals was the most the Baltimore could do and could have a real impact. Other local jurisdictions around the country have considered ways to limit the trains, but environmental groups say Baltimore would be the first East Coast city to adopt a zoning measure targeting the industry.

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 towns of Cecil County. These shipments are part of a global energy shift that's reducing gas prices and U.S. dependence on oil imports, but also controversial for their risks.

“Every new terminal that could get built would increase the number of trains coming through the city and the likelihood of an explosion,” Kunze said.

The lack of any immediate economic impact also makes it a good time to act, said Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, one of the bill’s lead sponsors. She said trying to prevent a catastrophic accident was an important public safety issue.

“People deserve to have whatever help we can provide legislatively and this is what we have to offer,” she said.

The measure has broad support on the council — 11 of its 15 members are signed on as co-sponsors. But the city’s law department has raised questions about whether the change to the zoning code would be constitutional.

In a letter to the committee handling the bill, the city’s lawyers said that without a clear definition of what crude oil is, the law would be impermissibly vague. And by singling out one kind of oil for special restrictions, the lawyers said, it could also fall afoul of the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection.

Houston energy company Targa Resources has withdrawn its plans to ship crude oil to a terminal in Baltimore.

The companies that currently operate the two terminals in Baltimore could not be reached for comment.

Targa Resources, a third oil company, sought to establish crude oil operations at a facility it operates in Baltimore, but eventually dropped the plans in 2016 amid changing market conditions, opposition from activists and questions from regulators. The company could not be reached.

Clarke said a definition of crude oil has been drafted and could be added into the legislation. Clarke also said that she has an legal analysis from an environmental group that argues that the measure passes constitutional muster.

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Councilman Ed Reisinger, another lead sponsor of the measure, said he’s also heard from a business group that is concerned that passing the measure could harm the image of the port. Reisinger said he didn’t share that concern.

“That’s a perception, I don’t see that as a reality,” he said. “I’m not anti-business. I just think this is a safety issue.”

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