City Council Moves Forward With Ban on Crude Oil Facilities

The proposal would ban new crude oil terminals in Baltimore and prevent two existing terminals from expanding, which advocates say would stop the city from becoming a crude oil hub and mitigate the risk of an oil train explosion

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Story Transcript

DHARNA NOOR: Five years ago, a crude oil train derailed in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. The resulting fire killed 47 people. Environmental activists are attempting to avoid such a disaster in Baltimore.

LARRY BANNERMAN: The time to stop this oil train is right now.

DHARNA NOOR: On an unseasonably warm February day, a city council committee voted to advance a bill that would change the city’s zoning code to ban the construction of crude oil terminals in Baltimore.

SPEAKER: The bill passes amended. This concludes City Council Bill 17-0150.

DHARNA NOOR: Advocates say that the crude oil train terminals pose dangers to public health.

L. SURAPANENI: When workers and residents are exposed to the chemicals in crude oil, they can have prolonged respiratory symptoms years after the spill, liver and blood disorders, and even lung cancer.

VALERIE HALL: Crude oil transportation is the cheapest, but it also poses the highest health risks and safety for our urban communities.

DHARNA NOOR: The activists say some 165,000 residents live in the blast zone, or the area near the tracks where crude oil is shipped that will be effected by an explosion. Keisha Allen lives just half a block away from the train tracks.

KEISHA ALLEN: The people who are most effected as it relates to South Baltimore, knows it runs in West Baltimore as well, are already marginalized communities.

TAYLOR SMITH-HAMS: Survivors of incidents, especially like in Lac-Mégantic, call “rivers of fire.” That’s really what is so destructive.

DHARNA NOOR: Before the hearing, activists gathered outside City Hall for a rally in support of the bill.

D. COTZEN BURG: We need to free ourselves from fossil-based fuels which are contributing to climate change.

DHARNA NOOR: They were joined by the bill’s co-sponsor, Ed Reisinger, and its chief sponsor, Mary Pat Clarke.

MARY PAT CLARKE: If we limit any expansion or new terminals for crude, we begin to diminish the future traffic through and in Baltimore City.

ED REISINGER: We have companies like CSX and other businesses, they’re looking through the lens of profit, and not the people’s public safety.

DHARNA NOOR: But opponents say that crude oil is being unfairly singled out when other commodities can also have dangerous public health effects. They say a ban could set a dangerous precedent.

ERIC COSTELLO: Tomorrow it will be jet fuel. On Friday it will be gasoline. Saturday, chlorine. Maybe by Monday we’ll ban sugar.

DHARNA NOOR: The activists agreed that other commodities can be harmful, but they say crude oil is far less regulated.

SAULEH SIDDIQUI: I think the truth of the matter is, those products are far more regulated. We know a lot more about them than we know about crude oil, and crude oil is actually the problem here.

DHARNA NOOR: Valerie Hall, a former firefighter, also said she fears firefighters are not properly trained to handle crude oil fires. She found out that there’s not a single Hazmat-trained firefighting unit in all of South Baltimore.

VALERIE HALL: If we had a derailment, or an explosion of crude oil in South Baltimore on any given one of those five train tracks, it would be catastrophic.

DHARNA NOOR: Opponents also argue that this ban will be bad for Baltimore’s business and labor.

JERMAINE JONES: What message are we sending then to the port when we, by zoning, prohibit this crude oil from happening?

ERIC COSTELLO: So in effect, by limiting this expansion of an existing terminal, or the creation of a new terminal, if they can’t do that in Baltimore City, they’re going to go do that in Anne Arundel County or Baltimore County.

DHARNA NOOR: The activists feel differently.

CHAUNA BROCHT: There are very few jobs involved in a crude oil refinery. I mean, you’re talking maybe a handful of jobs. A handful of jobs compared to putting people’s lives at risk, just, it doesn’t really make sense.

JENNIFER KUNZE: Each jurisdiction can only act where they are at, so this is the most Baltimore City can possibly do. Baltimore County could do the same thing, and I hope that they will follow the city’s example and do that. We shouldn’t be waiting to be the last to take action on this issue. Baltimore City here has the opportunity to lead and be first in doing something really positive.

FRITZ EDLER: We need this bill to pass. It is one of the pieces that we need if we’re going to have good, sustainable work, and a sustainable energy future here.

DHARNA NOOR: Baltimore is already home to two crude oil terminals. We’ve reached out to the facilities for comment.

TAYLOR SMITH-HAMS: Yeah, so there are two terminals that are currently permitted to ship crude oil. They would be grandfathered in under this bill. They just would not be allowed to expand, so that’s what happens when … This bill would put crude oil terminals into our prohibited use category of our zoning code, and that’s what happens when you become a prohibited use and you’re already in existence, is you just, you can’t expand your operations.

DHARNA NOOR: Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke says, “This is the time to act.” With oil prices low, there are likely fewer shipments of crude oil taking place in the U.S.

MARY PAT CLARKE: We’re not costing any jobs. We’re not taking away anything that exists, but we don’t want to become a crude oil hub.

DHARNA NOOR: Advocates say this bill can help usher in a just transition to renewable sustainable energy.

JENNIFER KUNZE: This is the opportunity for the city to act comprehensively, preemptively, and smartly.

DHARNA NOOR: With Taylor Hebden, this is Dharna Noor in Baltimore.