Call it ironic that on the very day six people died in a gruesome bus accident in southwest Baltimore, the chambers of the City Council were absorbed in an exercise on how to duck, delay and disengage from planning for a disaster of much greater magnitude: the explosion of one of the CSX freight trains that routinely carry a highly volatile Bakken crude oil across the city.
The threat is not academic.
Three years ago, a train carrying tank cars filled with Bakken crude derailed and exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. Forty-seven people were killed, many of them incinerated in an instant.
This week marks the official reopening of the vacant and decontaminated blocks where the town’s core was ripped apart by the blast.
With this backdrop in mind, community activists were overjoyed when City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young agreed to introduce a bill calling for risk assessments of oil-carrying trains going through Baltimore and preparation of an emergency plan in case of a spill or explosion.
The bill, written by the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, was introduced last January and co-sponsored by 14 of the Council’s 15 members.
For people like Ann Robinson and Valerie Hall it was a step toward protecting their South Baltimore community of Mt. Winans, which is surrounded on three sides by railroad tracks.
“We thought we were finally making progress,” Robinson said.
So the women waited patiently for the Council to take action, duly noting an accident last February 4, where CSX cars carrying hazardous materials derailed in nearby Fairfield, and another on June 13, when a train carrying a carload of acetone jumped the tracks in the Howard Street tunnel.
Neither incident resulted in any release of flammable liquids. But neither did it spur Young or the chair of the committee handling the legislation, Councilman James B. Kraft, to move the oil train bill forward.
Young’s spokesman told The Brew in June that the Council president still considered the bill a top priority, but was faced with other pressing matters, such as TIF tax incentive legislation for Kevin Plank’s Port Covington. The spokesman said a public hearing would soon be held.
Hear, but Don’t Vote
But nothing happened until CCAN activists showed up at a Kraft committee hearing in September, wearing red t-shirts with “hear the bill” and “don’t be crude” messages on them.
“At that meeting, Jim Kraft announced he would be hearing the bill on November 1,” said Jamshid Bakhtiari, campaign coordinator for CCAN.
During the hearing two days ago, Kraft wandered out of the chambers, leaving the committee bereft of a quorum, then returned to tell two dozen supporters: “We’re not going to vote the bill. We’re going to hear the bill.”
By failing to take a vote, Kraft ensured that the oil train bill had no chance of passing the Council before its term ends on December 5 – and all legislation pending before it expires.
A member of Kraft’s Judiciary Committee told The Brew that Young’s staff had instructed them before Tuesday’s hearing that the Council President did not want the bill moved.
Another person with direct knowledge of the matter said Bill 16-0621 was “too hot” and faced too much opposition to proceed to a vote.
We asked Young’s office for comment in two email messages, but there has been no response.
With the bill quietly put to sleep, it was left to Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, the committee’s vice chair, to promise “to meet with anyone” to get a new oil train bill introduced in the next term.
To which Kraft helpfully added that no one should expect any meeting before early 2017 given the upcoming holiday season and new Council transition period. By that time Kraft, a lame duck, will be gone.
“We are not Expendable!”
The parliamentary maneuvering left Robinson, president of the Mt. Winans Community Association, in the position of pleading for action to a body that had just washed its hands of the matter.
“Our community is surrounded by railroad tracks,” she said, standing resolutely at the speaker’s podium.
“If you think of a football field and if you looked from the goal to the 30 or 40 yard line, that is how close the railroad tracks are to my front door and my neighbor’s front door,” she continued.
“Crude oil trains travel over two separate at-grade crossings on Hollins Ferry Road, and these crossings are the most vulnerable places for a derailment and explosion to happen. If there was an explosion, the entire neighborhood of Mt. Winans would be gone. There would be no one left to be evacuated.”
Given two minutes to speak, she wrapped up her remarks succinctly: “We need this risk and health impact assessment approved so we can understand what might happen and be prepared.”
Valerie Hall then walked up to the podium. “If Ann sits on the 30 yard line, I sit on the end zone,” she said, noting that she has lived in Mt. Winans for 48 years.
Outside of the small predominately-black community, there are thousands of people in Morrell Park, Westport, Cherry Hill, Brooklyn and Curtis Bay all potentially impacted by trains that carry the oil to terminals for transhipment in barges.
Hall said the community first became aware of the train movements in 2013. Various attempts by the Chesapeake Climate Control Network and others resulted in the disclosure that fully 100 million gallons of crude oil were carried in CSX trains to the Fairfield terminals in 2014 and part of 2015.
Since September 2015, information on the shipments has not been available.
“I know we have low incomes and the prices of our houses are low,” Hall told the Council on Tuesday, “but we are not expendable!”
What If. . .
Chauna Brocht pointed out that some oil-tank trains also run on CSX’s main line in North Baltimore, at one point tunneling beneath the basketball courts and playground of the Margaret Brent Elementary/Middle School in Charles Village.
Just yards from the school, a retaining wall on 26th Street collapsed in April 2014, sending trees, parked cars, heavy stones, metal fencing and a sidewalk tumbling into the CSX right of way.
The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that a half-mile perimeter on either side of a railroad right of way should be evacuated in case of an oil train blast, while a two-mile-wide zone is potentially impacted by an explosion on the scale of Lac-Mégantic.
What could have happened to the children at Margaret Brent or the residents of Charles Village if a train carrying Bakkan crude was running through the cut at the time of the collapse?
That question was left dangling by Brocht, who choked up while describing her concern about the safety of her children who had attended the school.
Influence or Inertia?
After the hearing was over, several activists wondered aloud if the rail industry had killed the oil train bill.
CSX Transportation, for example, has contributed $3,000 to Young’s campaign fund, most recently last November, state election board records show.
Brian Hammock, CSX’s vice president of Maryland and Delaware state government affairs, did not argue against the bill on Tuesday (he didn’t have to because it was already dead), but he did urge the Council to be “holistic” and include hazardous cargo traveling by truck in any future safety assessment.
The most likely explanation for the Council’s inaction was push-back from city officials.
Rail transport of Bakken crude from the North Dakota shale fields to the port of Baltimore is a relatively new phenomenon. It does not fit into the cubbyholes of established protocol followed by disaster preparedness personnel.
Thus, Bill 16-0621 became a threat to “our current operational framework,” according to the city’s top emergency management officer, and is an infringement on the mayor’s “exercise of general supervision over all municipal officers and agencies,” according to the law department.
In short, governmental process and procedure swallowed up the concerns of Ann Robinson, Valerie Hall and Chauna Brocht.