Activists call for ban on new crude oil train terminals

By JACOB TOOK | February 22, 2018

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Organizers and community members gathered at a rally before the hearing on Wednesday.

The Baltimore City Council Land Use and Transportation Committee met on Wednesday to discuss a bill prohibiting the construction of crude oil train terminals in the City. Advocates for this bill argue that the pollutants and threat of explosion from crude oil trains make them too dangerous to run through Baltimore.

Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN) and Baltimore Clean Water Action (CWA) have led the campaign against crude oil trains since 2013, when one exploded in Lác-Megantic, Quebec, killing almost 50 people. According to CWA, 165,000 Baltimore residents live in areas that might be affected by an explosion.

Most of the crude oil that is shipped to port cities like Baltimore comes on trains from North Dakota. Because the oil is shipped between states, local governments have little power to regulate shipments. Instead, cities like Portland, Ore. and Vancouver, Wash. have passed legislation to regulate train terminal construction in urban areas.

Jennifer Kunze, the Maryland state organizer for CWA, said that they had concerns about both the safety of Baltimore residents and the long-term environmental impact of crude oil.

“The oil companies are putting communities across the country near these rail lines at risk with each shipment,” she said. “They’re obviously putting everyone on the planet at risk by continuing to extract with more and more extreme measures this crude oil that we know we need to keep in the ground if we’re going to meaningfully reduce the impacts of climate change.”

She explained that this bill, titled the Crude Oil Terminal Prohibition, seeks to amend the City’s zoning code to list crude oil terminals alongside trash incinerators, nuclear power plants and other facilities that cannot be built in Baltimore.

According to CCAN Healthy Communities Campaign Organizer Taylor Smith-Hams, organizers pushed for this bill after the Texas-based oil and gas company Targa Resources applied for a permit to ship crude oil from a terminal on the Fairfield Peninsula in South Baltimore.

CCAN blocked Targa’s access to this terminal by requiring them to obtain air pollution permits. Smith-Hams said that after this, they worked with City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke to find a preemptive way to block crude oil shipment in Baltimore.

“We started looking at how can we do that so that we don’t have to be playing whack-a-mole in defeating these terminals one by one,” Smith-Hams said. “Councilwoman Clarke hoisted it up and said that we need to figure out a way to work on this issue.”

Clarke represents the 14th district, which includes Charles Village, Homewood campus and the surrounding area.

At a rally before the hearing on Wednesday, Clarke said that she was excited to make Baltimore neighborhoods safer. She added that the city has struggled against federal legislation.

“We know that our city is criss-crossed with commercial rail lines, but the Feds won’t let us legislate anything about that,” she said. “If we limit any expansion or terminals for crude [oil], we begin to diminish the future traffic through and in Baltimore City.”

Jeff Fraley, a representative of Baltimore Industrial Group, a union representing workers from several industrial corporations, testified against the bill at Wednesday’s hearing.

He said he’d met with several members of the committee and other local leaders to answer some questions he had about the bill.

“Will this bill ban trains carrying crude oil through the city in the future? The answer is no,” he said. “Will this bill get rid of oil facilities in the city? No, it will not.”

He added that the bill could dissuade potential investors or other corporations from settling in the city.

“Will this bill set a formal precedent for banning any use or commodity in the city just because some people find it undesirable? The answer is yes,” he said. “There will be a precedent set forth, and other commodities will be arrested because of it.”

Benjamin Zaitchik, an associate professor of Earth & Planetary Sciences and member of the Baltimore Commission on Sustainability, said that he believes in the movement behind this bill and doesn’t want oil reserves to continue shipping through Baltimore.

However, he questioned whether the bill would be the most effective measure against crude oil shipments.

“Baltimore is not the only port. There are other places for this to go,” he said. “Is this the most powerful way to actually slow the flow of the extraction of oil and slow the markets?”

He suggested that if other cities followed Baltimore’s example, the measures might be more effective.

He said that he thought organizers might be using the public safety concerns to push for a larger agenda against climate change.

“I do worry a little bit about convenient conflation of issues, where you lead with safety, but what you really care about is climate and you’re not being 100 percent honest about what you’re trying to do,” Zaitchik said.

On the other hand, Kunze said that the issue brought the intersection of climate change and public safety to the forefront.

Westport, a neighborhood in South Baltimore, is surrounded by rail lines.

“It’s an area that dealt with environmental racism and pollution for a very long time. We have a lot of industry in the area — the cumulative impact of multiple different polluters within in a small area in an area that is majority black and low-income — that’s something that we can’t allow to continue,” she said.

Chauna Brocht, a resident of Charles Village whose children attended Margaret Brent Elementary School, said that a rail line ran beneath the school’s playground. She said that 30,000 public school students could be affected by an explosion.

Brocht said that the bill was important for Baltimore because of the breadth of communities affected.

“This is an issue that crosses racial lines. Low-income communities are affected, middle-income communities are affected,” she said. “There’s a groundswell of community support on this issue.”

Several students and faculty at Hopkins have conducted research in support of the campaign against crude oil trains.

Dr. Laalitha Surapaneni, a physician at the Hopkins Bayview campus and a member of the community group Physicians for Social Responsibility, has done research on air pollution from the crude oil train terminals.

She said that a primary reason many cities have considered legislation against crude oil shipments was because of the concerns about air pollution.

“The terminals release what’s called ‘volatile organic compounds,’ and so they independently cause many health problems including liver and kidney dysfunction, sometimes leukemia. They’re especially harmful to children,” she said.

Anna Scott, a PhD candidate in the department of Earth & Planetary Sciences, also shared concerns about the potential pollution from these trains.

She explained that she had conducted research to determine the possible carbon footprint of each train.

“How much CO2 would you get from a train full of oil that you wouldn’t get if that train was not being shipped?” she said.

According to Scott, one train car carries 340 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), and a standard train might carry about 12,000 tons. She said that this was equivalent to about 500 years of carbon emissions for an average Baltimore resident.

She said that her research shows the consequences of continuing to facilitate crude oil shipment.

“Allowing for the possibility of building more fossil fuel infrastructure is not the direction we should be going,” she said. “The evidence is clear that we need to transition away from a carbon-based economy.”

Sauleh Siddiqui, the co-director of the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at the Whiting School of Engineering, spoke about the quality of the crude oil on these trains.

He said that little research has been conducted into what happens to crude oil under certain conditions during train shipment.

“It was impossible to find information on where these accidents were happening,” he said. “It was something that was not looked after, and it was up to volunteers to actually do [the research].”

Siddiqui refuted the common claim that crude oil is a less volatile substance than gasoline. 

“Oil on a train is very different than oil in a reservoir,” he said. “Oil on a train is oil under pressure travelling next to a river, travelling next to urban centers, and if it crashes then it’s under heat.”

He further explained that oil in transit is often diluted with other mixtures, altering its chemical makeup in uncertain ways.

Like Scott, Siddiqui added that he hopes his research will show the dangers of crude oil shipping.

“My job as an academic isn’t to tell people where to have their regulations or what’s better for society, my job is to put information out there,” he said.

Scott said that Hopkins should take a more engaged stance on the issue.

“The support of the institutions that are backing us in policy issues shows that these values that we claim to hold so dearly aren’t just lip-service,” she said.

According to Surapaneni, Hopkins has already acted as a leader in the broad campaign against climate change. She cited the University’s recent divestment from thermal coal companies as a step in the right direction.

“At Hopkins we do a lot in terms of switching over to renewable energy,” she said. “We have enough scientific evidence, whether it’s from air pollution or climate change, on human health. As an organization that promotes that, we can definitely play a role in supporting our community.”

She added that community leaders drafted a letter to the City Council with over 70 signatures from local institutions, including the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA).

Kunze also called for Hopkins to take a stronger stance in this effort.

“It’s important for anchor institutions like this to take a serious look at taking that kind of leadership role and advocacy efforts that will benefit both their own campuses and the whole city,” she said.

She said that a train car was derailed on the MICA campus in summer 2016, prompting them to take a stance on the issue.

Smith-Hams, who studied at MICA, said that the incident brought this issue closer to home for her.

She said that institutions should pressure local governments to fight climate change because of the federal administration’s stance on the issue.

“Institutions with clout and with platforms [have] a responsibility to stand up and fight for public health and safety,” she said.

Brocht said that the range of threats she faced simply in sending her kids to school was scary but said that this is an easily-avoidable threat.

“This is pretty straightforward,” she said. “This is not as complicated as getting gun control laws passed or figuring out diplomatic relations with North Korea. This is a zoning ordinance.”

The bill passed through committee on Wednesday, with six out of seven votes. It will proceed to consideration by the full City Council on Monday.

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