A disaster waiting to happen: Tracking hazmat trucks in Baltimore’s tunnels (2024)

When the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapsed into the Patapsco River, it destroyed a central passage for transporting hazardous materials up and down the East Coast.

Soon, fears surfaced online that hazmat trucks are now using Baltimore’s underwater tunnels instead, despite state law largely prohibiting them from doing so.

From a parking lot wedged between the two tunnels, The Baltimore Banner sought answers. Over several hours, Banner journalists observed 40 tanker trucks going through the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel, including more than a dozen with hazmat placards typically prohibited from driving through the underpasses.

The truckers carrying hazardous materials are making a simple calculation, long-haul drivers and industry experts say: Take a 35-mile detour through the increasingly congested Interstate 695 beltway and lose money, or take the tunnels.

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Meanwhile, The Banner found law enforcement has been doing little to stop them.

With the Baltimore Port now fully reopened, experts are predicting a “perfect storm” as thousands of trucks will enter the Harbor and Fort McHenry tunnels with containers from overseas amid peak summer traffic. Based on the placards, that can be anything from diesel fuel, heated metals and compressed gas.

It won’t be an easy problem to untangle. Though truckers are legally required to display hazardous materials signage, half a dozen truckers interviewed said some are removing them before driving through the tunnels.

That leaves police and first responders with significant blindspots. Law enforcement relies on placards to identify possible violations, and first responders use them to inform their responses in an emergency.

“We began discussing this within a couple days of the Key Bridge incident,” Baltimore Fire Chief James Wallace said about hazmat cargo in the tunnels. “The absence of placards presents a life safety problem.”

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The public could face dire consequences if a fire erupted or hazardous chemicals spilled inside the city tunnels. Noxious gas could fill the enclosed space. The infrastructure could crack and fracture, pouring water into the tunnel. Clean-up could take weeks or months — even years.

Given the stakes, some have questioned why state officials aren’t doing more.

In the wake of the bridge collapse, Gov. Wes Moore championed the state’s resiliency and pushed forward with an urgent re-opening of the port. But when presented with the findings on the potential risks of that ramped-up activity, Moore’s office declined to comment, deferring instead to the Maryland Transportation Authority Police.

“With the collapse of the Key Bridge, [MDTA] resources in the Baltimore area have been focused at the I-95 and I-895 tunnels,” said spokesperson Sgt. Brady McCormick in a statement.

Other elected officials, when reviewing the findings, expressed concern.

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U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume said police “must act sooner rather than later” to better monitor what goes through the tunnels. U.S. Senator Ben Cardin called out the truck drivers illegally using the tunnels.

“Every driver on Maryland roads is expected to follow the law,” Cardin said in a statement. “The loss of the Francis Scott Key Bridge has been devastating, but it is not an excuse for any driver to disregard basic safety measures.”

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The duties of stopping and inspecting commercial vehicles on highways are split between the Maryland State Police and the Maryland Transportation Authority Police. But the latter has sole responsibility over the state’s major bridges and tunnels.

Typically, trucks are randomly inspected at weigh stations, where transportation officials check their contents and weight. But I-895, an 11-mile stretch of highway that includes the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel, doesn’t have any.

Instead, MDTA police rely on “mobile spot inspections.” McCormick said the MDTA has ramped up hazmat inspections, but state police data suggest only a slight increase despite, after the Key Bridge collapse, thousands more vehicles taking the tunnels daily.

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In the month before the bridge fell, there were zero hazmat inspections on the I-895 Corridor in Baltimore . After the collapse, from March 27 to April 26, there were 11 — despite hundreds of hazmats taking the tunnels each month.

”We can’t stop them all,” said Lt. Paul Bruce, who heads the MDTA’s commercial vehicle safety unit.

“If we have one tanker stopped, there may be three that go by.”

After The Banner presented its findings, the MDTA said it is now working with consultants to find long-term solutions to prevent restricted cargo from being transported through the I-95 and I-895 tunnels.

In addition, McCormick said the agency is collaborating with state police to further increase inspections as well as training more MDTA staff for vehicle inspections.

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A disaster waiting to happen: Tracking hazmat trucks in Baltimore’s tunnels (3)

The Howard Street Tunnel fire

Baltimore has been through a hazmat catastrophe before.

On a humid day in July 2001, a freight train carrying hazardous materials derailed in the Howard Street Tunnel, sparking a chemical fire that lasted for days.

The fire effectively shuttered downtown Baltimore, prompting thousands to flee the smoke and flames. Weeks later, residual chemicals ignited explosions that sent manhole covers flying.

It’s an incident that still haunts first responders. Donald Heinbuch, who led the city fire department’s response to the tunnel fire, said he has always worried about another hazmat disaster.

While overlooking the wreckage of the Key Bridge from his home window, Heinbuch said law enforcement should be doing more to warn the public and step up inspection efforts.

“It has to be well known to everyone that we’re not playing around with this, because it’s a dangerous situation to have those hazmats down in the tunnel,” Heinbuch said.

What The Banner saw going through the Harbor Tunnel

Over two days, The Banner spent three hours observing traffic going through the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel. We saw a total of 40 tanker trucks go through, 13 of which had placards usually prohibited from the tunnel. Another nine carried diesel fuel, placard 1993, which is largely permitted in the tunnels. The remainder did not have placards, suggesting an unknown or empty load.

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Placard 3257 ❌

Heated liquids or metals

Placard 3082 ❌

Miscellaneous dangerous goods

Placard 1993 ✅

Diesel fuel

No placards ✅

Empty truck or unknown contents

Key

✅ = permitted in tunnels*

❌ = not permitted in tunnels*

*There are some exceptions that allow prohibited hazmat classes and that prohibit 1993 placards in tunnels.

Source: Maryland Code of Regulations

Laila Milevski/The Baltimore Banner. Photographs by Gail Burton for The Baltimore Banner.

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Placard 3257 ❌

Placard 3082 ❌

Miscellaneous dangerous goods

Heated liquids or metals

Placard 1993 ✅

No placards ✅

Diesel fuel

Empty truck or unknown contents

Key

✅ = permitted in tunnels*

❌ = not permitted in tunnels*

*There are some exceptions that allow prohibited hazmat classes and that prohibit 1993 placards in tunnels.

Source: Maryland Code of Regulations

Laila Milevski/The Baltimore Banner. Photographs by Gail Burton for The Baltimore Banner.

The city fire department would be the first line of defense in a hazmat disaster. And combating a roaring fire or smoke plume in an enclosed space would be no small task. The limited entrances and the lack of visibility in the tunnels would make it difficult to evaluate the situation and evacuate civilians.

Wallace, the fire chief, said the department’s hazmat team trains weekly and all city firefighters have basic hazmat training. One essential lesson they learn: look for placards. The hazard identifiers are crucial for firefighters to know what the exposed substance is, the supplies needed to clean it up, and how to approach evacuation efforts.

Without placards, firefighters are forced to delay response to further investigate the incident, leaving them in a lose-lose situation: If they wait too long, lives could be at-risk. If they move too quickly, they could put civilians and themselves in danger.

“Now we have people in harm’s way because they’re not properly prepared. They’re not properly protected.” Wallace said. “The absence of placarding is a concerning issue for me.”

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‘It won’t happen to me’

The whispers spread across truck stops soon after the bridge collapse.

“I have heard people say, ‘Well, I’ll take my placards down,’” said Kim Freeman, a truck driver of 15 years. “It’s horrible — if something were to happen, you know, you’re putting a lot of lives in danger.”

But the alternative can be daunting as well. The state now mandates most hazmats drive an extra 35 miles around I-695 through Baltimore County. Under perfect traffic conditions, it takes about 40 minutes. But since the collapse, conditions are rarely perfect with increased traffic, and it can sometimes take hours.

Traffic delays may be a minor inconvenience for most drivers, but for truckers it often comes at a significant financial cost. Most are paid by the mile and are not further compensated for slowed traffic or congestion.

Further, some companies only accept deliveries within a strict time window. If a trucker is late, many companies make drivers wait until the next day to unload.

Consistent enforcement of hazmat regulations might not be an effective deterrent. While getting caught driving hazardous materials through a tunnel could result in a trucker losing their license, more often they only receive citations if caught.

Truckers openly discuss removing placards online. One Reddit user even encouraged drivers to take I-895 to the Harbor Tunnel due to the lack of law enforcement and weigh stations.

To Michael Belzer, a former trucker and Wayne State University economics professor, it’s less of a moral decision than an economic one. Because hazmat accidents are relatively rare, he said, to truckers, the consequences of taking the tunnels feels less pressing when faced with certain economic pressures.

“They will say, ‘Oh, it won’t happen to me,’” Belzer said. “Of course, when it happens, it always happens to somebody who undoubtedly thought it wouldn’t happen to him.”

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The coming storm

For transportation police, enforcing hazmat regulations is always a tricky equation, but lately, the problem has become vexing.

The MDTA’s Commercial Vehicle Safety Unit is a small operation of 42 officers, with 11 positions currently vacant. The unit monitors and inspects the vehicles at tunnels and toll places for the entire state.

Lt. Paul Bruce, who heads the unit, insists that the agency has “sufficient manpower” to take on the increased traffic demands at the tunnels, but the MDTA’s approach to mobile inspections and subsequent data call this into question.

When a hazmat tanker truck is headed towards a tunnel, Bruce said MDTA inspectors at mobile units and weigh stations will often stop it to cross-reference its signage with its shipment papers. If they don’t match up, the MDTA will issue a violation and redirect the vehicle from the tunnel.

“Basically the only way to confirm what’s in the truck is to actually physically stop it,” said Bruce.

For hazmats, Bruce added, the MDTA focuses heavily on tanker trucks, and even had an initiative exclusively inspecting them, including if the tanker did not have placards.

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But hazmats are also transported on box trucks — 18-wheelers that haul anything from furniture to medical supplies to hazardous materials in barrels, boxes and countless other containers. While box trucks are also required to display placards if carrying hazardous materials, truckers say these drivers are also removing the signage.

Prioritizing spot inspections of tanker trucks over box trucks is almost certainly resulting in authorities missing hazmat going through the tunnels, especially if placards have been removed. According to economics professor Belzer, stopping every box truck may be an infeasible “resource-intensive” solution for the traffic authority.

“But, if this is a real problem, they may need to do this,” he added.

Since the bridge collapse, the MDTA said, the Commercial Vehicle Safety Unit has focused on patrolling the I-95 and I-895 tunnels. However, hazmat inspection records from the month before and after the tragedy show an increase that would do little to offset the uptick in traffic since the collapse.

To the MDTA, the enforcement burden is not solely theirs. McCormick, an MDTA spokesperson, called the responsibility “a team effort” among law enforcement, truck drivers and shipping businesses “to do the right thing.”

Taken all together, Maryland Motor Truck Association President and CEO Louis Campion called the rise of traffic and trucks using the tunnels a worrying precursor for the port reopening. Both the Harbor and Fort McHenry tunnels are expected to soon have even more congestion as trucking shipments to and from the port skyrocket.

“It really is the perfect storm coming,” Campion said.

Mark Puente is a staff writer with The Marshall Project-Cleveland and a former truck driver of 15 years.

Banner audience editor Stokely Baksh and contributor Catherine Smith helped report this story.

This article has been updated to clarify that, in a graphic, placard 3082 refers to miscellaneous dangerous goods.

A disaster waiting to happen: Tracking hazmat trucks in Baltimore’s tunnels (2024)
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