Two members of the Baltimore City Council want to ban new crude oil terminals from the city as part of an effort to limit the number of oil trains traveling through the area.
Council members Mary Pat Clarke and Ed Reisinger introduced a proposed change to the city's zoning laws Monday that would add the oil terminals to a list of banned facilities, ranking them alongside nuclear power plants and incinerators.
"Crude oil shipments are potential hazards to residents and entire neighborhoods," Reisinger said in a statement.
The council members said they were turning to the zoning code because federal law stops city authorities from directly regulating rail. They hope limiting the terminal capacity will mean there will be less interest in sending oil trains to Baltimore.
Two existing facilities in Baltimore would be allowed to stay but could not expand in any way under the proposal.
For years environmental activists have been sounding the alarm about crude oil that is transported by rail, which can lead to deadly explosions in the case of an accident. In 2013, 47 people died when a train carrying crude oil exploded in Canada.
Precise details of the shipments are scarce, but with the price of oil low, the practice is widely believed to currently be at a low ebb. Rob Doolittle, a spokesman for CSX Transportation, said no oil trains have operated in Baltimore or anywhere else on the company's network for months. Doolittle also said the company has never run dedicated oil trains through the city, but had moved small amounts of crude on mixed trains.
Clarke said the dip in the market meant it was the right time for the council to take up the proposed restrictions.
"It doesn't put jobs in jeopardy," she said. "We don't know when the marketplace may change. If it does we want to have already capped out the capacity of Baltimore facilities."
The operator of one of the existing terminals declined to comment; the other did not respond to questions.
Environmental groups say there's reason to think that if the price of oil picks up again, companies would seek to expand the number of terminals in Baltimore. That's what happened during the last boom several years ago, but the plans were blocked.
Jennifer Kunze, an organizer with Clean Water Action, said it makes sense to put limits in place now.
"This is really a preventative measure," she said.