I write this letter in support of Baltimore City Council’s legislation to prohibit the expansion of Baltimore City’s two existing crude oil terminals and any new ones so as to minimize crude-by-rail trafficking through local neighborhoods (“Baltimore council members propose ban on new crude oil facilities,” Oct. 16). Between 2008 and 2014. the number of carloads of crude oil shipped on railroads across the United States increased over 50 times, and the number of accidents for crude-by-rail are highly correlated with this increase. Although pipelines spill more gallons per incident, crude-by-rail spills have had more devastating impacts, as the rail lines often run near rivers or through densely populated areas.
While recent data show that the amount of crude oil shipped by railroad has decreased from the 2014 peak, it’s expected to rise again due to changing demand, and especially with the establishment of new terminals. I strongly believe the Baltimore City Council should consider the explosiveness and health risks of Canadian crude oil from the tar sands.There is a great amount of it flowing in our rail network, but there have been almost no studies done on its impacts. Researchers have carefully looked at the health and fire safety issues of crude oil from the Bakken shale, but very little is known about the crude oil from the Canadian tar sands. Given its vapor pressure, and the possibility of diluent added to it, the crude oil can pose several health and safety risks. In addition, details about what happens when it is spilled in water are unknown, and deserve more scientific study.
The U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration estimates that an oil train derailment in an “average” population density area would cost $1 billion. In a densely-populated area like Baltimore, PHMSA estimates the damage would be $5 billion for lives lost, property ruined, and cleanup. For reference, the cleanup of the crude oil train tragedy in the small town of Lac-Megantic cost over $400 million, but the railroad company responsible had an insurance policy that would only cover damages up to $25 million.
I want to thank the council for their time and effort in looking at this important issue, and hope they consider all information available to them when making this decision.
Sauleh Siddiqui, Baltimore
The writer is co-director of the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at the Whiting School of Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.