Sierra & Tierra: Your Present from Power Utilities: a Lump of Coal

December 18, 2014

By Javier Sierra

‘Tis the season to give and share and not to receive, to show our generosity with the less fortunate.

Unless, of course, it comes to the dozens of power utilities across the country that want to turn off the lights of the bright future of clean and renewable energy.

The threat for these energy monopolies powered by dirty fossil fuels lies in the explosive growth of solar energy in our country. In the last decade, this clean source of power has grown by 140,000 percent, and since 2010 by more than 400 percent. By 2016, solar energy will be as cheap or cheaper than conventional power in all but three states. And we owe more than half of this expansion to rooftop solar panels in homes and business.

NREL 3Solar energy has grown by almost 140,000% in ten years (Photo: Sierra Club)

In California alone, two thirds of these installations took place in low- and middle-income homes, which has created more than 47,000 jobs, 20 percent of them among Latinos. To thousands of our families, this blessing has saved up to half of what they used to pay for conventional electricity.

On the contrary, for public utilities, this is a curse. In more than a dozen states, including California and Florida, they have launched a legal offensive against solar power to protect their dirty monopoly.

The great incentive for the installation of rooftop solar panels lies in the capacity to export excess power to the grid in exchange for credits to the electric bill. The utilities, however, are plotting to end this popular incentive alleging that solar power generators take advantage of the grid without paying for the service or maintenance.

California’s three major utilities, for example, want to charge all customers an extra $10 per month, which will discourage homeowners from going solar or making their homes more energy efficient. Additionally, the utilities want to flatten rates, which will ultimately lower the bills of those who consume the most power. According to The Utility Reform Network, these changes would increase the electric bill of 70 percent of the state’s residential consumers.

In Florida, thanks to the utilities’ undue influence, the Public Service Commission a few weeks ago passed a proposal that completely dismantles the state’s energy efficiency goals and eliminates all of the state’s rooftop solar panel programs. The new, retrograde regulations will remain in place for a decade in a state whose southern half is economically more at risk of sea level rise due to climate change than any other part of the world.

The utilities’ arguments indeed sound like a spoiled brat’s tantrum. Generating energy through rooftop solar panels actually reduces the wear and tear of the electric grid. Also, it saves billions of dollars in construction of new conventional power plants and reduces dependency on existing sources of dirty energy.

What the utilities propose would smear with soot the face of future generations, especially for us Latinos who already have the misfortune to live disproportionately in the parts of the country with the worst air quality. Southern California, for instance, includes the cities with the dirtiest air in America —a daily punishment for the health of millions of Latinos, especially our children.

During the Christmas holidays, a star called sun is leading the way toward a clean energy future that will save us from the worst consequences of the climate crisis. The alternative of the energy monopolies? A huge lump of coal.

Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. Follow him of Twitter @javier_SC

Why COP 20 Lima Matters to South American Countries

December 08, 2014

The Conference of Parties (COP20) currently being held in Lima is critically important for South American countries given their exposure to climate change impacts. Land surface changes, fossil fuel extraction, and sea level rise are key concerns for these countries.

I used to take exotic trips when I was a small boy in my native country of Ecuador. Sometimes we went to the top of the Andes, sometimes to the jungle, sometimes to the mangrove islands. I remember the lush forests along the roads, interminable green. Our boat ride to my grandfather’s hacienda meandered through thick mangroves that felt like caves.

When I visited some of these sites years later I saw only humanity’s footprint. Mangroves gave way to shrimp farms. The jungle, once grand in scale, had given way to farms and shrubs. The Andean mountain tops, so starkly white in my childhood, were grayer.

Ecuador is part of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), with oil reserves in the country’s eastern rain forest, part of the Amazon basin. It has the third largest oil reserves in South America, behind Venezuela and Brazil.

The government of Ecuador has been quite clear about its intentions as far as fossil fuel extraction. In the wake of being unable to secure $3.6 billion to leave oil in the Amazon Basin, Ecuador officials decided to move on with the extraction of heavy crude.

Oil blocks in Ecuador’s Amazon. Image: Openl, PubMed Central

An interesting precedent would have been set if the Yasuni ITT payment had gone through: Would payments be made to other large oil-producing countries to keep fossil fuels in the ground?

Ecuador’s decision has come at great cost to Yasuni National Park, one of the most biodiverse places on earth, and to the natives in the region. But it has also riled up local and international activists and represents important subject matter for COP20 talks.

Increased knowledge and respect of the environment is a growing sentiment for many in Ecuador. This was evident with the Yasuni case. It is also evident in the reduction in deforestation in Brazil.

It is unfortunate that the deforestation rate has slowed in pace mostly in Brazil. Yetadvocacy in countries such as Ecuador is a growing trend. Hopefully, the message from the population will be loud enough to hear in Lima.

Roberto Mera is a climate scientist, Kendall Science Fellow in climate attribution and a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

California Appeals Court Rejects Transportation Plan for Ignoring 2050 Climate Targets

November 25, 2014

Southern-California-trafficPhoto by Daniel R. Blume, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In 2005, former Governor Schwarzenegger issued an Executive Order setting a target for California to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. At the time it was issued, the Executive Order tracked scientific consensus on the emissions reduction trajectory needed to avoid significant disruption of the climate. The Legislature subsequently enacted AB 32, the California Global Warming Solutions Act, to require the Air Resources Board to develop a plan and take sufficient action for the state to meet the 2020 target. While the Executive Order's 2020 target was enacted into law though AB 32, the force of the 2050 target and its effect on agency decisionmaking remained a source of debate until yesterday. 

In a sweeping victory for the climate and clean air, the California Court of Appeal agreed with the Sierra Club and its allies that a $200 billion auto-centric Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) by the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) for failing to disclose and mitigate the Plan's inconsistency with the Executive Order's 2050 targets.1 The Court's decision is both a victory for clean air and sustainable land use and transportation in San Diego, and for all Californians, as public agencies throughout the state can no longer avoid consideration of the long-term climate impacts of their decisionmaking.

SANDAG's RTP was the first in the state to contain the Sustainable Communities Strategy required by Senate Bill 375, a state law intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through smarter land-use and transportation planning. Unfortunately, far from functioning to reduce emissions, SANDAG's plan front-loaded the expansion and extension of freeways at the expense of public transit, inducing sprawl and reinforcing the region's dependence on car-oriented transportation. As a result, as shown in the graph below, SANDAG's Plan would increase greenhouse gas pollution from development and transportation through mid-century, at precisely the time when dramatic reductions are necessary to avoid dangerous climate disruption. 

In its environmental review for the RTP, SANDAG refused to analyze or mitigate the project's inconsistency with the Executive Order emissions reduction trajectory on the grounds that an Executive Order is non-binding policy without the force of law. The Court of Appeals rejected SANDAG's arguments, finding that "[b]y disregarding the Executive Order's overarching goal of ongoing emissions reductions, the EIR's analysis of the transportation plan's greenhouse gas emissions makes it falsely appear as if the transportation plan is furthering state climate policy, when, in fact, the trajectory of the transportation plan's post-2020 emissions directly contravenes it."

The investment choices we make today, such as whether to widen a highway instead of building light rail or to construct a new gas plant instead of renewables and energy storage, have profound impacts on our ability to achieve the continued reductions needed to meet long-term climate goals. Instead of being swept under the rug, yesterday's Court of Appeals decision helps ensure the consequences of these choices are now fully disclosed and minimized.

1The Sierra Club was represented by Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger LLP and brought this case with Center for Biological Diversity and Cleveland National Forest Foundation.  Attorney General Kamala Harris filed a separate action challenging SANDAG's RTP.

- Matt Vespa is an attorney with the Sierra Club's Environmental Law Program

Green Victories On a Blue Day

November 07, 2014


As we look at the November 4 election results throughout the country and especially in the U.S. Senate, many environmentalists may be feeling a bit defeated, and worried about the trajectory of recent federal progress setting unprecedented fuel economy standards and significantly reducing carbon pollution in the electric sector.

However, if you look closely at this week's election results, there are bright spots where the environmental agenda carried the day. It turns out that in California and Texas -- yes, Texas --the oil industry took a harder hit.

In Richmond, California, population 107,000 and home to a Chevron refinery that exploded in 1999 and again in 2012, the oil giant spent $3 million on the mayoral and city council races. The corporation's goals were to elect local officials who would not stand up to the corporation's egregious inspection and oversight practices that led to those devastating events. However, instead of falling prey to Chevron's overbearing advertising tactics and its election website purporting to provide the objective view, Richmond voters stood up to the oil giant and defeated all of Chevron's candidates. The victorious mayoral candidate had a campaign budget of about $50,000.

In California's San Benito and Mendocino counties, the voters also defeated more than $2 million of oil industry campaigning to pass measures that ban fracking within their borders. With only $140,000 of grassroots campaign money, ongoing advocacy among California communities demonstrated that the public is not buying the oil industry's deceptive claims that fracking is safe and will boost local economies. Instead, by exercising their right to vote, citizens spoke to protect homes, schools, public health, the environment, and scarce drinking water resources, and to boost investments in clean fuels.

And in Denton, Texas, at the heart of the state's energy boom, citizens resoundingly beat back the oil industry by banning fracking within city limits by a 59% to 41% margin. Again, the residents spoke out to say enough is enough.

Below, fracking in a residential neighborhood in Weld, Colorado, along the Rocky Mountain Front.


What's clear from these results is that the oil industry is dumping big bucks (relative to the opposition) into local politics to buy elections in an attempt to prolong our nation's dependence on dirty, dangerous fuels, and to undermine a transition to a clean fuel economy. But what's even clearer is that citizens aren't willing to be bought or duped by such dirty campaign tactics.

So in the midst of some of our post-election day woes, the citizens of Richmond, Denton, and San Benito and Mendocino Counties, provide a glimmer of hope that we can overcome dirty oil's pumping of money into campaign politics and beat back prolonged reliance on dangerous, climate-disruptive fuels.

In the upcoming weeks, California citizens have more opportunities to weigh in on extreme crude oil projects, including projects to expand rail transport of explosive, polluting crude oil through the San Francisco Bay Area and along California's treasured coastline. Please check back in the coming days for more information on how to take action.

- Devorah Ancel, Sierra Club Environmental Law Program

A Mixed Bag: Southern California Edison's Proposed Replacement for San Onofre Nuclear Plant

November 06, 2014


Yesterday Southern California Edison ("SCE") announced the resources it selected to replace capacity it received from the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (above), a 2,200 MW nuclear facility, and once-through-cooling gas plants subject to retirement under State Water Board regulations. The Sierra Club invested a significant amount of time in the fight over how to replace San Onofre, organizing rallies, petition drives, and conducting intensive advocacy at the California Public Utilities Commission ("CPUC") to make sure that San Onofre was replaced with clean energy and not long term investments in fossil fuel plants.

The resources were solicited through an "all-source" request for offers (RFO), which allows all resources, including gas-fired generation, energy storage, demand response, renewables, and energy efficiency, to bid and compete in the same solicitation. The selected resources were also subject to parameters set by the CPUC, which required that new resources for the West L.A. Basin area be composed of at least 1000 MW of gas-fired generation, at least 600 MW of "preferred resources" (efficiency, demand response, and renewables) and/or energy storage and 300-500 MW of any resource.

What happened? Here is a breakdown of the resources SCE has selected from the RFO and will seek final procurement approval by the CPUC through a formal application:

Energy Efficiency:                            130 MW
Demand Response:                            75 MW
Renewables (Behind-the-Meter):          44 MW
Storage:                                        261 MW
Gas-Fired Generation:                    1,382 MW

Total:                                         1,892  MW

So, what do we make of this?

The good:

The All-Source RFO: SCE's all-source RFO, the first of its kind in California, allows for competition among a range of potential resource solutions to meet need. The response to SCE's RFO was extremely robust, with over 1,800 proposed offers. SCE's all-source RFO is a step forward in utility procurement practice and stands in stark contrast to SDG&E, the other utility impacted by San Onofre's retirement.

Rather than conduct an all-source RFO to meet 300-600 MW of any resource need authorized to SDG&E by the CPUC following the retirement of San Onfore, SDG&E is seeking CPUC approval of a bilateral contract for all of this capacity with the 600 MW Carlsbad gas plant. Bilateral contracting is a private negotiation that prejudices other potential resource providers who are kept from competing to fill authorized procurement amounts as well as advocates like the Sierra Club seeking optimal outcomes for customers and the environment. The Sierra Club is opposing approval of the Carlsbad contact before the CPUC.

A Precedent-Setting Showing by Energy Storage: The 261 MW of storage procurement is a significant boost for the industry and will result in storage deployment at a more accelerated pace than required under California's recent energy storage procurement decision.  SCE's proposed storage procurement is comprised of a range of applications, include a number of "behind the meter" storage application that will shift consumption from high to low demand hours and facilitate increased deployment of rooftop solar. SCE's proposed procurement also includes a 100 MW utility-owned battery storage provided by AES. The 100 MW battery storage project is significantly larger than existing battery-storage projects in the country and raises the bar for the size of storage projects utilities should be considering.


For additional scrutiny:

Did SCE's Proposed Procurement Comply with State Policy Prioritizing Preferred Resources? SCE proposes to meet its 300-500 MW "any resource" authorization entirely with fossil-fuel generation. To comply with state law and a long-standing energy policy called the "Loading Order," SCE must procure all feasibly available and cost effective energy efficiency, demand response, and renewables prior to resorting to fossil fuels. Because they typically have 20-25 year contracts with a utility, new gas plants create long-term commitments to fossil fuels that interfere with California's ability to rapidly decarbonize its energy system.

As SCE moves forward in seeking approval for the resources it selected from its RFO process, the Sierra Club will be scrutinizing SCE's procurement to make sure SCE did not improperly disregard the Loading Order and all feasible and cost-effective clean energy options. Given the number and range of responses to SCE's RFO, one would expect that SCE had plenty of viable carbon-free solutions to choose from in meeting its "any resource" needs.

-- Matt Vespa. Sierra Club Environmental Law Program

Sierra & Tierra: Our Neighbors, the Rolling Bombs

November 04, 2014

By Javier Sierra

Juan Parras knows well what it means to live surrounded by rolling bombs, and the frequent sound of the whistling engines pulling more than 100-car trains loaded with oil crude into his community is a constant reminder.

Parras lives and works in Manchester, the Houston Latino barrio with some of the heaviest oil train traffic in the country.

“Here we have the largest concentration of railroad crossings in the land,” says Parras, founder and executive director of Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, which has been active in Manchester for many years. “When we drive around here, we have to stop and wait for the trains to pass three or four times per trip.”

After 9-11, a lot of trains with dangerous cargo were diverted from communities as a matter of precaution and safety. But that is not the case in Manchester.

“This is a big issue because of national security and because of the extreme danger that this brings to communities,” says Parras. “The train yards around us containing hundreds of cars are left unguarded and anyone willing to do some serious damage can walk up to them unimpeded.”

_DSC0203Train cars loaded with petrochemical products in Manchester, Houston (Photo: Juan Parras)

Since 2005, the oil train traffic in North America has increased 40 fold. At any given moment, some nine million barrels of crude oil are being transported around North America. Yet we haven’t seen any real improvements in the safety of these trains. The oil and railroad companies, however, seem to be whistling past the graveyard.

In 2013, a train loaded with crude from North Dakota derailed and exploded, killing 47 people and leveling a section of the town of Lac-Mégantic, in Quebec, Canada. Since then, there have been accidents in Alabama, Colorado, Minnesota, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.

14395327079_56b6b00071_oAftermath of the Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, oil train disaster (Photo: Elias Schewel)

Living close to these trains is like rolling the dice. And the ones who are most vulnerable to these rolling bombs are us, Latinos, and other communities of color. According to a study by ForestEthics, out of the 25 million people who live in the oil trains blast zone, 15 million (60 percent!) are members of minority communities, including Manchester.

“Fortunately, we haven’t had any derailments or explosions with serious consequences on the population,” says Parras. “But we’ve had close calls. In the past year there’ve been two train derailments in our community. In one instance, the train was carrying dangerous cargo, the cars leaked but did not explode.”

DapartRecent derailment in Manchester, Houston (Photo: Juan Parras)

These dismal safety conditions in too many oil trains intensify the danger for millions of people. In a document submitted to the US Department of Transportation, several groups, including ForestEthics and the Sierra Club, underlined several flaws that make this railroad traffic “an unacceptable public risk.”

Perhaps the most clear and present danger is the widespread use of obsolete DOT-111 rail cars, which lack reinforcement in their shells, making them much more fragile in case of derailment.  

The groups demand that the Obama administration immediately improve the safety and security of oil trains by adopting the following recommendations:
•    Immediately banning the use of DOT-111 rail cars and a quicker phase-out of other unsafe types.
•    Expanding the emergency response preparedness in the communities situated in the blast zone.
•    Imposing speed limits and requiring state-of-the-art breaking systems on oil trains.
•    And requiring liability coverage to cover the true costs of crude-by-rail disasters.

And while these demands are considered, Juan Parras and the rest of the Manchester residents keep looking over their shoulders every time they hear a train whistling into town. “Here comes another rolling bomb into our barrio,” they say.

Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. Follow him on Twitter @javier_SC

The Sierra Club and the Military: A Long and Fruitful History

November 03, 2014

Stacy Bare

By Stacy Bare, Sierra Club Outdoors Director

On Veterans Day -- and for several days leading up to and after Veterans Day -- we celebrate those women and men who have served their country in uniform. We're lucky at the Sierra Club to have a high percentage among our members and activists. Based on available demographic data, we estimate that 10 percent of the Club's overall 2.4 million members and supporters are veterans. By contrast, only 5 percent of all Americans have served in the Armed Forces. For me as a veteran, it's pretty special to be in a place where more than double the percentage of the general population chooses to continue serving their country.

Vets rafting

There are a few broad generalizations of veterans that hold pretty true across the board, though there are always exceptions. The generalizations that I believe draw those of us who have served in uniform and now at the Club are a commitment to service, team, something bigger than yourself, a sense of mission, and the protection of our democratic values.

Iraq & Afghanistan vets

At the end of the day, ensuring that we have access to public lands -- the very physical incarnation of our drive for equal rights and freedom -- and clean air and water (basic human rights if ever there were any), are right in line with the belief system of the men and women who have served. We as veterans are represented at the Club through far more than our award-winning Sierra Club Military Outdoors program, but with outings as the heart and soul of the Club, its no surprise we have former Army Major and Silver Star recipient Joshua Brandon leading one of the biggest engagement programs for service members and veterans throughout the Club, with more than 13,000 veterans and military families served this year.

People often times ask me when the Sierra Club held its first military outing. The answer is 1903, on a three-night campout that John Muir shared with U.S. veteran President Theodore Roosevelt. PBS reports this "…could be considered the most significant camping trip in conservation history." It led to the creation of Yosemite National Park.

Teddy Roosevelt & John Muir

You'll find men and women who have worn the uniform throughout the Club's: people like the Beyond Coal campaign's Daniel Sawmiller, Ohio Chapter Chair Bob Shields, and rock star ICO volunteer Melaina Sharp. And there are thousands more, as well as those who served as military kids and spouses.

So this Veterans Day, as you consider the long and fruitful history with the Club and the men and women who have served, get outside and march or cheer alongside the veterans in your local Veterans Day parade; take some time to volunteer with your local outings group to reach out to local veterans; or just get out onto our public lands and enjoy the things we fought to protect -- and that you as a Sierra Clubber are still fighting for.

Watch this video about Stacy Bare's personal journey of recovery once he returned from active duty in Iraq.


End of the Coal Era in Massachusetts

October 29, 2014


Back in June, the Sierra Club and its allies in the Coal Free Massachusetts coalition won a long-sought victory when the owners of the 54-year-old Mt. Tom coal plant in Holyoke -- one of the biggest polluters in the state -- announced that the plant would cease coal operations this October.


Unfortunately, the June announcement by GDF Suez, which owns Mt. Tom, was not a binding commitment. "Our worry was that they were just 'mothballing' the facility while they rode out the current economically unfavorable conditions, in hopes of resuming operations at some point down the road," says James McCaffrey, senior campaign representative with the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign. That's McCaffrey at right, below, with Beyond Coal volunteer Rick Purcell.


Those worries were fueled by GDF Suez's attempt last spring to terminate a "compliance demonstration process" designedto ensure that the impact of the plant's emissions of harmful sulfur dioxide did not exceed federal air-quality standards.

But for the past two years, the Sierra Club had consistently been pushing the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to finalize enforceable sulfur dioxide limits, threatening legal action over the plant's expired air permit, which galvanized DEP's initiation of the compliance demonstration process.

"After GDF Suez announced this June that it was terminating the process, we turned up the heat," McCaffrey says. "Over the summer, the Club and its allies submitted over 1,000 petitions to Governor Deval Patrick and the DEP commissioner, and circulated a letter taking the agency to task for failing to protect public health."


And in early October DEP responded, mandating that the plant comply with the sulfur dioxide emissions standards before it would ever be allowed to resume operation.

Continue reading "End of the Coal Era in Massachusetts" »

America's Secret: "We Had Muir"

October 28, 2014


Fountain Lake Farm in central Wisconsin, the boyhood home of Sierra Club founder John Muir, was recently purchased for protection by a Wisconsin land trust. The newly protected area will adjoin the John Muir Memorial County Park and be part of a larger 1,400-acre natural preserve, which also includes the Fox River National Wildlife Refuge.

Spencer-Black"Muir always credited his upbringing on Fountain Lake Farm with instilling in him a love of wild things," says Sierra Club Vice President Spencer Black, at left, the keynote speaker at an October 15 event in Madison, Wisconsin, celebrating the farmstead's protection. "In The Story of My Boyhood and Youth, published in 1913, he wrote that it was this landscape that first inspired his passion for nature."

The farm was purchased by the Natural Heritage Land Trust, and was funded in part by contributions from the John Muir Chapter of the Sierra Club as well as Wisconsin's Stewardship Fund, a land conservation effort begun by Black when he was a Wisconsin state legislator.

"While Muir achieved fame vividly describing and fighting to protect the Sierra Nevada and other lands out west," Black said in his keynote remarks, "he always credited his love of nature to his upbringing in Wisconsin.

"Galen Rowell, the renowned wilderness photographer and mountaineer, while climbing in the Alps with a European colleague, asked him why the mountains in Europe had so much development compared with many of our American ranges. The European mountaineer replied simply: 'You had Muir.'

"Here in Wisconsin, we can indeed be proud that 'We had Muir.' And now, thanks to the good work of the Natural Heritage Land Trust, we all have, protected for posterity, the landscape that inspired John Muir to protect our wild places."


 Read Black's complete remarks at the celebration of the purchase of Fountain Lake Farm.

 Photos of Fountain Lake Farm by Brant Erickson; photo of Spencer Black by John Murray Mason.

The crude-by-rail fight brewing in Baltimore

October 22, 2014

Rebecca Ruggles and Leah Kelley
Rebecca Ruggles (L) of the Maryland Environmental Health Network and Leah Kelley of the Environmental Integrity Project listen to questions from the group.

On Tuesday night I joined a small group of concerned Baltimore residents to hear more about the threat of crude oil trains running through Charm City.

The Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN) organized the meeting - the first of three in the city to discuss a proposed oil export terminal.

According to CCAN:

The oil industry is targeting Baltimore as an easy through-way to export crude oil to refineries along the East Coast, and potentially throughout the world. In the Baltimore community of Curtis Bay, Targa Terminals is seeking approval to construct a crude oil export facility that would cause more air pollution and bring significant safety risks to South Baltimore and the city as a whole. A crude oil train or port explosion could threaten thousands of Baltimore residents, local property and the environment.

The proposed Targa Terminal would mean 9.125 million barrels of oil every year would be exported out of Baltimore - which means some 12,766 rail cars annually. Broken down further, that's one train of 35 cars every day running right through the city.

In Morrell Park, where this meeting took place, you could say we're suffering from a little activism fatigue. We just won a years-long fight against a polluting rail/truck facility proposed for our neighborhood. The Targa Terminal itself would be in Curtis Bay, a community already very overburdened by industrial pollution and already fighting a proposed incinerator.

While I've heard extensively about crude-by-rail risks because of my work with the Sierra Club, it becomes so much more real when a disaster could happen right in your neighborhood. I've long wondered what all CSX was transporting by rail through our neighborhood. I know some of it is coal cars, and some of the tanker cars are labeled with some very confusing and toxic sounding things - but not all of the tankers are labeled. And now we could see even more rail cars -- and not just more of them, but rail cars that are more prone to derailment (DOT-111 - which the National Transportation Safety Board said have a "high incidence of failure") and will be full of crude oil?

Crude1The meeting's attendees were shocked by the map (shown here at the right - courtesy of ForestEthics) showing the evacuation zones and potential impact zones should just one oil train car derail and explode.

"These cars and rails aren't meant to handle all this," said Jon Kenney, an organizer with CCAN. "All of downtown Baltimore is in an evacuation zone."

Residents of Morrell Park and several surrounding neighborhoods are already very familiar with the huge number of trains running through the neighborhood. A "Welcome to Morrell Park" mural at the community's entrance is dedicated to trains. We know that a number of hazardous chemicals are transported by rail through the area - we just aren't being told what.

"We tried to get a list of what they're transporting, but they won't give it to us," said one Mt. Winans resident (a neighborhood bordering Morrell Park) at the meeting.

This controversy isn't just limited to us. The Maryland Department of the Environment is attempting to force CSX and Norfolk Southern to disclose the amount of crude oil on the cars, but those companies took MDE to court over it.

For now, CCAN, the Environmental Integrity Project, the Maryland Environmental Health Network (all represented at Tuesday's meeting) and many other groups are pushing for MDE to reject the air pollution permit Targa Terminal has applied for and for the Baltimore City Council to pass an ordinance banning any crude-by-rail in the city.

There will be a public hearing on the air permit, the date just hasn't been announced yet. And as I said above, there are more community meetings planned along the crude-by-rail route right through Baltimore. CCAN and others are encouraging and working with these communities to unite against very real the crude-by-rail dangers.

"Communities have to raise the health and safety issues here," said Rebbeca Ruggles of the Maryland Environmental Health Network.

As a resident of Baltimore and a neighborhood dissected by a number of rail lines dedicated to hazardous materials, I plan on being very involved.

-- Heather Moyer, Sierra Club

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