City Council wants health study of transporting oil by train through Baltimore

Port Deposit, MD -- A Norfolk-Southern train transporting crude oil heads north through Port Deposit past a railroad crossing near the U.S. Post Office.   Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun

Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young is seeking a study of the health and safety risks of transporting crude oil by train through Baltimore after state officials revealed CSX Transportation carries millions of gallons of the flammable fuel through the city weekly.

Young's bill, which has wide support on the council, requires the city's health department to study risks posed to communities along rail lines.

"Having a plan in place is instrumental to effectively tackling any situation that may unfold in the transportation of crude oil by rail," Young said in a statement.

More than 165,000 Baltimore residents live within a mile radius of train tracks that transport crude oil. The Chesapeake Climate Action Network, which is backing Young's bill, says such proximity puts "them in the potential impact zone of a derailment and disaster."

CSX Transportation moves up to five trains, each carrying 1 million gallons or more of crude oil, through Baltimore weekly, according to records released in September by the Maryland Department of the Environment. The CSX trains also move through eight other counties in Maryland. Norfolk Southern Railway runs as many as 16 trains carrying 1 million gallons or more of the crude oil each week through Cecil County, records show.

The federal government began requiring companies that ship large quantities of a type of crude oil called Bakken to notify state emergency officials about their movements in May 2014, after several rail accidents involving the highly-flammable fuel. Several media outlets, including The Baltimore Sun, filed public information requests for the documents submitted in Maryland by CSX and Norfolk Southern.

The railroads sued to block the release, but a Baltimore judge ruled the documents must be released because "there is no likelihood that disclosure … would cause substantial competitive harm."

Crude oil trains run along 26th street in Charles Village, through the Howard Street Tunnel, next to Camden Yards and M&T Bank Stadium, and over Gwynns Falls, study advocates say. Trains then travel through Morrell Park, Mount Winans, Westport and Brooklyn on their way to a rail-to-barge terminal in the Fairfield Peninsula next to Curtis Bay, where oil is then shipped to East Coast refineries.

"Trains carrying North Dakota crude oil, known to be highly explosive and volatile, put neighborhoods like Westport in a vulnerable and dangerous situation," Keisha Allen, president of the Westport Community Association, said in a statement.

The Chesapeake Climate Action Network says five oil train derailments have occurred in the U.S. and Canada over the past year.

The worst North American oil train disaster occurred, advocates say, in July 2013, when a train carrying Bakken crude oil from North Dakota derailed and exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, causing the deaths of 47 people.

CSX has said the company's "highest priority is the safe movement of these shipments."