The City Council held its first public hearing Wednesday on the safety of shipping crude oil through Baltimore, with environmental advocates expressing concern about the practice.
"Right now, we are in a blast zone," said Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. "City Hall is in a blast zone."
According to advocates, 165,000 Baltimore residents live within a one-mile radius of train routes that are potentially vulnerable to explosions from crude oil train derailments.
City Council Vice President Edward Reisinger said the informational hearing was called to evaluate the threat the shipments pose to the city.
Reisinger said recent derailments — such as one in Quebec in July 2013 that killed 47 people in a massive explosion — are cause for concern. He also pointed to an April 2014 derailment in Lynchburg, Va., that spilled thousands of gallons of crude oil into the James River.
The hearing Wednesday evening at City Hall lasted about two hours. Dozens of advocates — many from the climate action network and Clean Water Action — held a rally outside earlier.
"It's not a matter of if another oil train will derail ... it's only a question of when," said the Rev. Amy Sens of the United Church of Christ.
The Maryland Department of the Environment recently denied an application by a Houston-based company to ship crude oil through Baltimore's port terminal near Fairfield. A Connecticut-based company, Axeon Specialty Products, ships tens of millions of gallons of crude oil through the terminal.
It's not known how much crude oil is shipped through the city or state. Norfolk Southern and CSX sued the state agency to prevent it from releasing the information.
Tidwell said the "No. 1 thing" advocates want is transparency — knowing the quantities, routes and times that hazardous materials are transported in local areas.
Trisha Sheehan, the regional field manager of Moms Clear Air Force, said she would like to see trains rerouted away from "vulnerable populations," such as hospitals and schools, and a transition to renewable energy sources.
City emergency management officials answered questions for council members. Executives from rail companies, including Norfolk Southern and CSX, also were invited to attend.
Jon Kenney, a community organizer for the climate action network, said the hearing was necessary to raise public attention.
"Residents of Baltimore want [the council] to take action on oil trains in their communities," Kenney said. "We have been talking to community members who live along the rail routes, and they are concerned. The rail companies are keeping everyone in the dark."
Reisinger said the council can take little action to influence the sorts of shipments made along rail lines. Still, he said, it is important to discuss how prepared the city and the companies are to safeguard communities from future accidents.
Dave Pidgeon, a spokesman for Norfolk Southern, said company officials recognize that communities like Baltimore look to them to operate the rail lines safely. He said Norfolk Southern has long had a record of safe delivery of hazardous materials.
"This country depends on the railroads to operate safely," he said. "That is something we have to shoulder."
He declined to say how much crude oil Norfolk Southern transports through Baltimore, citing safety concerns, among other reasons. Crude oil makes up less than 2 percent of the company's total traffic, he said.
He said the company works to make sure the shipments it delivers are carried on tank cars that meet the strictest safety standards.
"We have no choice," Pidgeon said. "We have to haul hazardous material, including crude oil. If a customer gives us a tank car that meets safety standards, we have to haul it. There's no question."