Alarming numbers of trains carrying explosive crude oil have been traveling to transfer terminals in Baltimore City and through Maryland to refineries along the East Coast since 2012, with no comprehensive study of the extensive public safety, health, and environmental impacts that a leak or explosion would cause. The election of Donald Trump as U.S. President increases the likelihood of expanded domestic drilling for oil, which could increase the number of oil trains on the nation’s rail lines. As a result, Baltimore, as the closest East Coast port to drilling sites in oil-rich North Dakota and elsewhere, may face an increase of this dangerous rail cargo.
Trains are a dangerous and unhealthy way to transport crude oil. Crude oil is highly flammable and can pose risks to people and the environment from spills, fires, or explosions. Crude oil is most commonly transported by DOT-111 tank cars, often called “Pepsi cans on wheels” for how easily a puncture and flying spark can cause a car to explode. The National Transportation Safety Board says that the DOT 111 tank cars can almost always be expected to breach in a train accident resulting in impacts or pileups. Federal regulators have encouraged rail companies to gradually phase out DOT-111 cars in favor of CPC-1232 models, which have better precautions against punctures. But this phase-out isn’t occurring quickly enough, and even these rail cars aren’t safe – many recent oil trains explosions, including on in Lynchburg, VA in 2014, involved these newer, ‘safer’ models. To compound the threat, the nation’s rail infrastructure is crumbling. The American Society for Civil Engineers gave U.S. infrastructure a D+ in a 2013 report and conditions have only worsened since then.
At least one facility in Baltimore City has permits to transfer crude oil from train to barge, and others may ship crude oil or apply for permits to ship crude oil. Additionally, crude oil trains can travel through the Howard Street Tunnel en route to terminals and refineries in Philadelphia and New Jersey. With increased domestic drilling for and train shipments of crude oil likely, it is imperative that Baltimore act now to protect itself to the maximum extent possible with a moratorium or ban on crude oil train terminals within city limits.