Marilaine Savard is a 41-year massage therapist and mother from Quebec who travelled to Baltimore last week to speak about an issue now before the Maryland General Assembly.
The subject she discussed with community and environmental activists at St. John's of Baltimore United Methodist Church is the exponential growth in the amount of crude oil being shipped by rail car across the United States.
Hydraulic fracturing has created a boom in oil and gas production in places like the Bakken Formation in North Dakota. And so thousands of trains are carrying Bakken crude oil – which is unusually volatile and explosive–through cities including Baltimore and Savard's town of Lac Megantic, which is near Quebec’s border with Maine.
Savard told the harrowing story of what happened on the night of July 5, 2013 to Lac Megantic, a town of about 6,000 people and tourist destination beside a picturesque blue lake of about 10 square miles.
At about 6 p.m., Savard said that she and her friend Julie took their two young sons on a stroll past a downtown café called the Musi-Café. People were outside eating and relaxing about 50 feet from the train track that cuts through the center of town.
“We said hello to people on the terrace,” Savard recalled. “It was very nice because this summer we had a very beautiful downtown. They had upgraded the façade of the Musi Café, and there was a beautiful new terrace. They had palm trees and flowers and it was very nice.”
They ambled to Julie’s house and went to sleep. And then at about 1:15 am, Savard awoke to hear her son, Alix, crying.
“I heard a sound that was like ‘boom!’ And then I heard two more ‘booms!” Savard said. “I was thinking at first that maybe it was just the industrial area, you know?”
She later learned that it was a 74-car oil train full of Bakken crude. An engineer had stopped and abandoned the train on the tracks, because it was having engine trouble and smoking. Firefighters trying to deal with the problem turned off the engine and inadvertently released the brake.
So the train – without out any people on it, and with its lights off – rolled downhill, slowly picking up speed. By the time the train was rumbling through the curve at the center of Lac Megantic it was travelling at about 60 miles an hour.
The train jumped the tracks, exploded, and sent a tidal wave of burning oil into the Musi Café. Twenty five people inside the café were burned alive. Forty-seven total were killed in the series of fires and explosions that flattened or burned 30 buildings.
"I went to the top of the hill, because there was a better view there, and I felt like six to eight explosions,” Savard said. “And they were like atomic bombs. Everything was flattened and burned down and the trees were not there. It was very much like a war zone.”
Similar but smaller derailments and explosions of Bakken crude oil trains have happened over the last three years in Lynchburg, Virginia; Mount Carbon, WV; and New Brunswick, Canada, among other locations.
Savard is working with the Chesapeake Climate Action Network and other groups in Maryland to raise awareness about the risks of what they call Bakken crude oil “bomb trains” travelling through Baltimore.
They have found a sympathetic ear in State Delegate Dr. Clarence Lam, a Democrat who represents parts of Howard and Baltimore Counties. Dr. Lam is a program director in preventive medicine at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
“I do have concerns about crude oil travelling through highly populated areas like Baltimore," Dr. Lam said. “Often, these communities and the neighborhoods that are nearby are not even aware that these types of trains are coming through. And in the event of an unfortunate accident, the results of an accident could be catastrophic."
Dr. Lam recently introduced legislation designed to improve the safety of crude oil trains in Maryland by increasing the number of rail inspectors, requiring rail companies to file disaster response plans with the state, and by forcing the companies keep adequate safety staff on trains, among other steps. The bill would increase a state tax on oil transfers in Maryland to help pay for additional safety staff and procedures and cleanup of disasters.
Last year, slightly different legislation passed in the state house but failed to make it out of the state senate. Some lawmakers, including Democratic state Senator Thomas "Mac" Middleton of southern Maryland, were skeptical of the need for the bill because trains carrying other hazardous chemicals routinely travel through the state without similar scrutiny.
Because interstate train regulation is a federal issue – not a state one – Maryland lawmakers can’t stop the crude oil trains passing through Baltimore. But advocates argue the state can at least better prepare itself for disasters like the one that burned down Savard’s town.