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Neighborhoodsby Mark Reutter7:27 pmJul 20, 20220

CSX cited for air pollution violations in coal terminal explosion

Curtis Bay residents say the violations MDE found are remarkably similar to what they have been reporting for years

Above: A CSX coal plant explosion in December sends billowing clouds of smoke over Curtis Bay. (@BCFDL734)

CSX Transportation was responsible for sending clouds of black hazardous gases into the Curtis Bay community during an earth-shaking explosion at its coal terminal last December 30.

So said the Maryland Department of the Environment as the agency issued five citations in connection with the blast that shattered windows and rained down soot on the far south Baltimore neighborhood.

Whether the finding announced today will result in an actual fine or other action is unclear.

Agency spokesman Jay Apperson said the matter has been referred to the attorney general’s office for enforcement.

Civil penalties for each air pollution violation could run as high as $25,000 a day, and MDE “may seek financial penalties and/or corrective actions, as appropriate,” Apperson said.

The findings come after months of protest by the Curtis Bay community and a week after a $121,200 fine levied by the federal Occupational Health and Safety Agency for safety violations found in the wake of the explosion, which blew out part of the coal silo.

Greg Sawtell, who co-chairs the Community of Curtis Bay Association, said MDE’s finding is a good, but very basic, first step for an agency that’s been unresponsive to the issue of pollution by CSX and nearby chemical factories for years.

“Apparently, it takes a mass explosion for MDE to wake up to what residents have been describing for decades,” he said. The violations the agency found, he continued, are remarkably similar to what residents have been reporting for years.

”It’s too late to protect people’s lungs that have already been damaged, but perhaps it can bring about some meaningful action,” he continued. “Not just words, but actual funding for what needs to be done, like putting money into things that are negatively impacted by under-regulated, polluting industries.”

Local industries could, for example, be required to make investment in homes, green infrastructure, recreation, transportation and other needs, he said.

MDE Secretary Horacio Tablada today promised to bring CSX into compliance with pollution laws to prevent another explosion.

He said the agency is supporting community efforts and volunteers from the University of Maryland and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health to set up a neighborhood air monitoring system.

The first data from it have yet to be analyzed, Tablada said.

Poisonous Plumes

The explosion occurred in the north reclaim tunnel of the terminal, where CSX had failed to take “reasonable precautions” to prevent volatile particulate matter from becoming airborne.

OSHA found that electrical equipment, overhead lighting and a transformer were not explosion-proof in the enclosed area. CSX did not test the atmosphere prior to employees entering the area to remove a blockage to the coal hatch feeder.

The explosion released carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, poisonous NOx gas, volatile organic compounds (VOC) and sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, MDE said.

Sawtell said that simply extracting some money from CSX is not enough.

“Money from fines wouldn’t touch our neighborhoods. It would just pay for the administrative needs of an agency,” he said.

“What the community wants is something more meaningful – to break the hold of this multi-decade situation that results in having a giant coal pile 1,000 feet from a recreation center.”

”We don’t want to see this thing explode again”  – Ray Conaway, president of the Community of Curtis Bay Association.

Ray Conaway, president of the Community of Curtis Bay Association, agreed.

“To hell with the state fining them. We don’t want this thing to explode again,” he exclaimed.

Conaway says his group is seeking accountability and assurances that it won’t happen again.

“We are talking about a fund to pay for damages to individuals who experienced illness, damage to their homes and real trauma.”

He complained that CSX never reached out to the community after the explosion. “Not a word from them.”

Need for Community  Voices

”We know we’re going up against a company with lobbyists and the whole thing. But we are confident that we know how to use our collective community power and bring in voices that need to be heard,” Conaway said.

Sawtell said that includes the ability “to consider the option of saying we don’t want a coal terminal here – period.”

Earlier this month, 10th District Councilwoman Phylicia Porter called the century-old terminal, which transfers trainloads of Appalachian coal to ships for overseas and domestic destinations, an “imminent threat to public health.”

She said she wants to work with the community, the state and Mayor Brandon Scott “to spearhead enforcement actions promptly” against industrial polluters and improve health outcomes in her district.

— Fern Shen contributed to this story.

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