PERRYVILLE, Md. – The long tanker trains full of crude oil roll south from Pennsylvania about twice a day, along the banks of the Susquehanna River and through the heart of historic Port Deposit, gliding within feet of the VFW hall, the community basketball court, the library and a riverfront playground.
They continue to nearby Perryville, where they often stop along tracks between a residential neighborhood and a community garden, near an old white trestle with the town’s name spelled out in brown lettering. There they wait, 100 tankers long, for clearance onto Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, which carries them onward toward refineries in Delaware.
“It’s part of our day-to-day life,” said Cathy McCardell, the assistant town admnistrator in Perryville, who works in the town hall building on the edge of the tracks.
Such crude oil shipments only began in recent years in Maryland during a boom in domestic oil production, part of a global energy shift that’s reducing gas prices and U.S. dependence on oil imports. The shipments are common knowledge in these towns despite the railroad’s best attempts to hide its operations.
The little-detailed movements of the increasingly ubiquitous commodity became a hot button issue after several high-profile derailments and explosions of crude-oil trains, including one that devastated a small Canadian town, killing 47 people in 2013, and one this year that polluted the James River and caused the evacuation of downtown Lynchburg, Va.
In Baltimore, existing and proposed crude oil shipments to terminals in the Fairfield industrial area have become the subject of debate among community groups and criticism from environmental activists, despite efforts by local officials to allay concerns.
In Perryville and Port Deposit, and further east along the rail line in Elkton and other small towns, the shipments inspire less concern.
“Perryville has a lot of people who are very used to railroad activity and aren’t quite as excitable as other people,” said Alan Fox, a town commissioner and local historian who has written a book on the town’s history. “It’s oil. We’re kind of weaning ourselves off the Arabian peninsula.”
Officials at Norfolk Southern, the railroad handling the shipment though Cecil County, also point to dropping gas prices and the benefits of the domestic oil boom when asked about their involvement. But they’ll say little about when, where and how the crude is moved.
Earlier this year, both Norfolk Southern and CSX sued the Maryland Department of the Environment to prevent the agency from disclosing information about their crude shipments. The Federal Railroad Administration started requiring railroads to disclose the information to state officials in May.
The records detail the volume, routes used and frequency of all trains carrying more than 1 million gallons of Bakken crude.
The railroads say the information is proprietary and would be a security risk if made public. Dave Pidgeon, a Norfolk Southern spokesman, said the railroad has a safe record and – as a common carrier – has an obligation to transport whatever products its customers want, including the volatile oil from the booming Bakken fields of North Dakota.
“We have the safe, efficient and reliable network that these customers need,” he said.
Citing the cases, Maryland officials have not released the information requested by several media outlets under the Maryland Public Information Act. The cases are set to be negotiated in pretrial conferences in March, with trials in April.
Without the records, crude oil shipments in Maryland must be deduced using information publicly disclosed elsewhere, including by Pennsylvania and Amtrak. They also can be understood through conversations with local officials and residents, who regularly see the tanker trains roll past their homes and offices.
“We’re not earthquakes, we’re not tornados, we’re not even floods, believe it or not,” said Perryville Mayor Jim Eberhardt of possible threats to the town. “The biggest risk for us really would be a railroad disaster.”
That realization came to Eberhardt before crude oil arrived, he said, and he’s been working for years to ensure local first responders have hazardous materials training. In August, town personnel also participated in a regional exercise geared toward crude oil derailments.