The marchers who stood in the rain outside the gates of the CSX coal facility in Curtis Bay – carrying signs that said “Coal Kills” and chanting “CSX has got to go!” – pegged their protest to a grim anniversary.
Nearly a year had passed since an explosion at the railroad’s coal terminal shook this far South Baltimore community, sending terrified residents diving to the floor as windows shattered and black soot rained onto streets, cars and backyards.
Since the December 30 blast, officials of the Jacksonville, Fla.-based company say they have installed ventilation fans and made other changes that will prevent such events in the future.
Meanwhile, the state’s environmental watchdog has largely deferred to federal OSHA officials, who imposed a $121,000 fine on the railroad for workplace violations.
If the response ends there, it’s unacceptable, said speakers at last week’s rally that drew about 60 people to the gates of the sprawling transfer facility, where an immense pile of coal lay, as always, uncovered.
“One time fines for an everyday threat to our health just doesn’t cut it and doesn’t bring us the transition we need from coal to a safe, non-toxic material we can live with,” said Curtis Bay resident Terriq Thompson.
“One-time fines for an everyday threat to our health just doesn’t cut it” – Terriq Thompson.
“I have not opened up my windows for 15 years,” said Angela Shaneyfelt who, like many residents, says coal dust is ubiquitous in Curtis Bay.
Shaneyfelt lives just blocks from the CSX Curtis Bay Terminal, where for the last 140 years coal carried by rail from Appalachia is transferred to barges and ships at Stonehouse Cove.
“I love fresh air. But we don’t get any around here.”
Among other things, the protesters are calling on Baltimore officials to force the company to stop storing and transferring coal at the site at 1910 Benhill Avenue.
The district’s councilwoman, Phylicia Porter, is on record supporting them.
Elected officials in the port city of Richmond, Calif. took exactly that step. The city council voted in 2020 to ban coal storage, prompting lawsuits that ended in an agreement by the companies to end the practice by 2027.
“They acted to protect their workers’ and residents’ health,” said Shashawnda Campbell, a leader of the South Baltimore Community Land Trust, who began her activism as a student at Ben Franklin High School.
“We need the same level of leadership to solve the same problem here in Baltimore.”
If Baltimore’s City Council took such an action, it would defy a pattern that Cornell University anthropology professor Chloe Ahmann calls “a tragedy.”
She and others have documented the area’s transformation over the last century from rowhouse streets lined with poplar trees to a dreary landscape of petrochemical companies and other undesirable uses.
In addition to the coal terminal and chemical plants, the peninsula is currently home to a city landfill, a rendering plant, a city sewer treatment plant, a medical waste incinerator, and fields of oil and gas storage tanks.
Scenes from the Wagners Point community before it was demolished. (YouTube)
Convinced that exposure to toxic chemicals was taking a toll on their health, residents in the 1970s and 1980s focused their complaints on the frequent explosions rattling the peninsula, said Ahmann, who has been researching the area’s industrial history.
Accidents have plagued the area for an even longer period.
In 1920, for example, a devastating fire at the U.S. Asphalt Refining Company broke out when two oil drums exploded after being struck by lightning. Flaming oil flooded the streets and 32 homes were destroyed, leaving 100 people in Wagner’s Point homeless, the Baltimore Sun reported at the time.
The 1984 tank explosion “put up a mushroom cloud like Hiroshima” – Chloe Ahmann.
During and after World War II, industrialization ramped up, and the explosions became even more frequent, leading up to a pivotal 1984 tank explosion at the Essex Industrial Chemical facility in Fairfield.
That blast, according to Ahmann, was said to have “put up a mushroom cloud like the bomb at Hiroshima.”
Buyouts and Move Outs
Coming on the heels of three other high-profile industrial accidents, the Essex explosion gave residents the leverage to get some kind of a win.
“Pursuing slow, chronic health impacts is hard for a community,” Ahmann said in an interview with The Brew. “People realized they couldn’t make the city care about their health. Instead, they stressed their imminent demise in the event of the next disaster.”
A run of tragedies “further galvanized residents to seek justice through relocation,” according to UMBC professor Nicole King, who has also researched the area’s history.
She cites the death of a beloved community activist from cancer in 1998, followed by an explosion and three-alarm fire at the Condea Vista Chemical facility that injured three workers,
What the residents ultimately won from their lengthy struggle with the city – which was threatening to take their homes by eminent domain – was buyouts for a small group of homeowners in the communities of Wagner’s Point and Fairfield.
“They got paid to move from their homes, but they didn’t win any intervention from the city or state that would rein in the industry around them,” Ahmann said.
A teacher at Curtis Bay Elementary School until 2012, Ahmann saw how the unhealthy air impacted her first-grade students:
“The dust made it so hard for some of them to breathe that they chose to stay inside during recess.”
Fighting to Stay
Following last December’s coal plant explosion, residents say they resolved not to leave, but to push back against the company.
“We are not going to let this history of environmental injustice repeat itself,” the Community of Curtis Bay Association (CCBA) said in a statement after two residents filed a class lawsuit against CSX in October.
Their complaint not only sought damages, but payment by the company for environmental monitoring and periodic diagnostic exams to ensure early detection of coal dust-related disease.
The organizers of last week’s march have a similar demand for relief funds to mitigate the impact of toxic industry.
They also want help transitioning to a more sustainable “green” economy, with a new community-owned compost operation and recycling, deconstruction and reuse facilities.
These activities, the community land trust’s Greg Sawtell argues, are crucial to prepare for the eventual closing of the BRESCO trash incinerator, whose contract was recently extended by Mayor Brandon Scott.
“If Mayor Scott is really serious, these are things he ought to do now” – Greg Sawtell.
“If Mayor Scott is really serious when he says he’ll do everything he can to prevent having to renew BRESCO again, these are things he ought to do now,” Sawtell said.
The community land trust and CCBA have identified a 64-acre former landfill on the peninsula as a potential site for a “zero-waste resource recovery park.”
Another improvement is the $9 million that the city has committed to overhauling Curtis Bay’s aging recreation center, where last week’s march began.
“These investments are happening just a short distance from CSX that just blew up! I mean, it’s right over there. It’s a major concern!” said Meleny Thomas, development director for the community land trust.
“The city has really got to come to grips with this. These explosions and pollution can’t go on,” she continued. “We’re working hard to build up the community here. We could use a little help.”
MORE ON INDUSTRY AND ORGANIZING IN SOUTH BALTIMORE:
• A talk by Chloe Ahmann, professor of anthropology at Cornell University, on December 6, at 4-5:30 p.m., titled “Time Bomb: Two Hundred Years of Toxic Disavowal in Late Industrial South Baltimore.” Via Zoom at https://zoom.us/j/92699946481.
• A talk by Nicole Fabricant, professor of anthropology at Towson University and author of “Fighting to Breathe: Race, Toxicity and the Rise of Youth Activism in Baltimore.” Watch an event that just took place at Red Emma’s [VIDEO HERE] featuring Fabricant, Shashawnda Campbell of the South Baltimore Community Land Trust, and former Morgan State University Professor Lawrence Brown, author of “The Black Butterfly: The Harmful Politics of Race and Space in America.”