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CSX faces state fine for pollution from Curtis Bay explosion

The CSX Transportation coal export terminal on the edge of Curtis Bay.
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The CSX Transportation coal export terminal on the edge of Curtis Bay.

Nearly seven months after an explosion shook CSX Transportation’s Curtis Bay piers and rocked the nearby community, the company may pay a hefty fine for air pollution to the state’s environmental authority.

The Maryland Department of the Environment sent the freight rail carrier a letter this week detailing several potential violations of air quality rules. The case is being reviewed by the environmental department lawyers to determine how heavy the fine should be. The company could face up to $25,000 a day in penalties.

CSX didn’t take “reasonable precautions to prevent particulate matter from becoming airborne,” before the explosion according to the state’s letter. MDE charges CSX released emissions including carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen, sulfur dioxide and volatile organic compounds without permission.

The site has the capacity to move 14 million tons of coal each year, some of which is used by regional coal plants for electricity in Baltimore and the rest is exported.

Coal was being transported on a conveyor belt when the explosion happened on December 30. Video from the local fire department shows fire, smoke and a loud boom can be heard. No injuries were reported.

The company claims that it went door-to-door in the neighborhood to meet with property owners on December 31. But neighborhood groups asserted that a representative of the company has never been in contact since the explosion and did not show up to the city council hearing.

Curtis Bay resident Ray Conaway remembers a loud ‘cacophony’ of sound, a burnt smell and his home shaking after the December explosion.

Conaway is president of the Community of Curtis Bay Association and has lived about four blocks away from the coal transfer site since 1999. While the state and federal investigations are helpful, it’s not enough, he said.

“There are folks who are worried about the foundation of their homes being unstable because it shook the ground,” he said. “We don’t know what the long-term effects of this explosion will be.”

Neighbors have struggled with cleaning coal dust off their homes and vehicles for decades, but the blast was scary, he said.

The Baltimore Firefighters Union shared a photo of the fire in Curtis Bay after an explosion at the CSX coal terminal in December 2021.
Baltimore Firefighters Union IAFF Local 734
The Baltimore Firefighters Union shared a photo of the fire in Curtis Bay after an explosion at the CSX coal terminal in December 2021.

“CSX has been absent during the entire process,” he said.

Instead the company submitted a letter to the city's Public Safety and Government Operations committee in mid-June.

CSX officials told the city it would investigate the incident, provide air quality monitoring and review its coal dust plan.

“Without the coal piers, the Port of Baltimore could lose vital federal funding that supports so many good paying jobs in the city,” said Brian Hammock, a spokesperson for CSX in a letter to the city council committee.

The coal pier is “critical to the state of Maryland and serving national energy needs,” wrote Cindy Schild, spokesperson for CSX in a recent email. “We have been in close communication with the Maryland Department of Environment since the December incident.”

CSX expects to “thoroughly investigate the incident and take necessary corrective and preventative actions.”

The state began air monitoring through a partnership with scientists at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health and the University of Maryland.

“The Maryland Department of the Environment is committed to using its authority to assign accountability for the explosion in Curtis Bay and to bring the CSX facility into compliance to prevent something like this from happening again,” said Horacio Tablada Maryland Environment Secretary in a statement.

The next informational public hearing about the blast will be at the city's Public Safety and Government Operations meeting scheduled for August 24 at 5 p.m.

Kristen Mosbrucker is a digital news editor and producer for WYPR. @k_mosbrucker
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