CSX coal explosion impacted a large swath of residential Curtis Bay, report finds
The new report, obtained by The Brew, gives more details about the range and cause of the blast
Above: Rowhouses huddle beneath the black smoke coming from the CSX coal terminal on December 30, 2021. (BCFD Local 734)
Coal dust was detected as far as 12 blocks away in residential neighborhoods facing Baltimore’s CSX Curtis Bay coal loading plant in the wake of last December’s explosion, a new report says.
“A survey of the surrounding neighborhood found deposition of coal dust (as distinguished from combusted material) in an approximately 12-block area to the west of the facility,” GHD Group, a global engineering consultant, stated in a previously unreported study obtained by The Brew.
Most of the off-site debris exposure exited from the western side of the plant, known as the North Escape Tunnel, says the study, commissioned by CSX and dated July 29, 2022.
The blue-collar Curtis Bay community sits atop a hill west of the plant. “The region was consistent with what would be expected to have emanated from the escape tunnel, and possibly from the vertical releases from the open feeder holes advected by winds,” the report stated.
Other new information in the report: there were no less than three fast-sequenced combustions that occurred last December 30.
The root cause of the explosions was a build-up of methane gas and airborne coal dust, CSX had previously told The Brew, which a spokesman repeated at a City Council hearing on Wednesday.
A “fireball” exited the south service entrance of the north tunnel, causing the fire and damage at the transfer tower, according to GHD and a preliminary report by CSX last January.
• Long before today’s explosion, Curtis Bay residents complained about black grit from CSX coal terminal (12/30/21)
Coated with Coal Dust
The largest of the blasts occurred in the following locations, the report says:
• The North Escape Tunnel, “towards the west into the railyard and as into the neighborhood to the west of the facility property.”
• Vertically from the open feeder holes in the North Reclaim Tunnel, “primarily depositing on the facility property.”
• From the south portal of the North Reclaim Tunnel, “along with the fireball,” primarily impacting the central tower.
As a result, multiple plumes of thick smoke formed above the facility, and residents reported (and showed through cellphone images) black dust coating homes, cars and sidewalks.
The report was provided to The Brew by the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) after a request to obtain it from CSX was unsuccessful.
City Councilman Mark Conway, chair of the Public Safety Committee that held a second hearing into the blast on Wednesday, had not yet reviewed the GHD report, according to his spokesman.
Phylicia Porter, the 10th District Councilwoman who represents Curtis Bay, had seen the report, but Chair Conway had not, spokesman David Pontious said in an email.
BCFD: “No immediate threat”
Testimony given by a fire department official at the Council’s initial June 15 hearing into the explosion sharply conflicts with the GHD findings.
Deputy Fire Chief Arlen Doles, who was the standby commander on the day of the explosion, said he didn’t see any coal dust in the air.
“Operations [at the plant] were shut down,” Doles said. “We were there for suppression activities caused by the coal dust explosion. I’m not aware of any hazardous gases or materials released as a result of that explosion.”
A statement provided to The Brew by Conway’s office – on behalf of the fire department – states that “there was no formal level of classification for this incident because no immediate threat was identified after our units arrived on location.”
The statement continued: “Although there was structural damage to certain portions of the facility, all air monitoring meter readings conducted by BCFD units during the incident (time on scene) were within normal limits.
”The Maryland Department of the Environment’s Emergency Response Division and Air Quality Control both responded to the incident and conducted air quality testing as well. Per MDE all air quality values were within normal limits. CSX also initiated air monitoring with their own internal Hazmat resources.
“A cease-and-desist order was issued due to the damage of the structure, which prevented Fire Investigation Bureau to complete an origin and cause investigation (cause is still undetermined per Office of the Fire Marshal). Once all agencies agreed that the air quality levels were well in the acceptable ranges and that there were no additional issues, the incident was deemed under control and the scene was officially turned over to CSX Police/Hazmat at around 3:15 PM that day.”
Call to Suspend Operations
MDE issued a pollution violation notice to CSX that could potentially result in $125,000 in fines for the explosion, while the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has cited CSX for serious worker safety violations that carry $121,000 in penalties.
Appearing at this week’s hearing, CSX’s director of state affairs, Brian Hammock, said the railroad has installed ventilation fans that have increased air flow by 20 times and added air monitoring devices.
There’s been no dangerous build-up of methane gases since the explosion, Hammock stated.
Nevertheless, at the end of the hearing, Councilwoman Porter announced that she supported demands by some Curtis Bay residents to suspend operations at the terminal.
She asked members of Mayor Brandon Scott’s staff to convey her message, so she and the mayor could jointly address safety and health issues posed by facility, where trainloads of coal are transferred to ships for foreign export.
CSX is a railroad company governed by federal “interstate commerce” regulations, and local municipalities have little say over its operations.