For Curtis Bay residents like Janet Clark, today’s thunderous explosion at the CSX Coal Terminal was terrifying – and only the last reason to fear and feel the gritty landmark.
Surrounded by mountains of black coal, the large metal silo regularly emits pungent odors and leaves a coating of particles on windows, cars and patio furniture, say residents of this southernmost Baltimore neighborhood.
For years, the soot and smells emanating from the operations of the 1910 Benhill Avenue terminal have left them wondering what harmful substances they inhale on a daily basis.
âYou wipe things up and an hour later that black soot is all over the place again,â said Clark, who lives about 200 yards from the coal pier.
“We had an inflatable kiddie pool in the back, and every morning it was dark again, with black stuff splashing around in the water.”
Today, a late morning explosion at the facility caused residents to plunge to the ground and watch in amazement as the smoke rose into the sky. So far no injuries have been reported.
After witnessing the incident as she walked with her fiancÃ©, Clark’s daughter came home with soot-streaked hair.
âWe wonder if this is hard on our health. We’re very concerned about it, âsaid Clark, who has lived on Church Street for seven years.
âWe had a kiddie pool in the back and every morning it got dark againâ – Janet Clark, Curtis Bay.
Community leaders say they have tried, unsuccessfully, to get national and local authorities to do something for the facility and others in their riparian industrial community.
âWe’ve been ringing the bell about this for a long time now,â said Ray Conaway, secretary of the Community of Curtis Bay Association. “Maybe now, with this catastrophic event, people will be careful.”
Conaway said the “boom” and vibrations today around 11:30 am “were so loud I thought a plane had crashed.”
People in the neighborhood were saying the same things online that others were saying from miles away:
“‘What was?’ ‘What was that this? ‘ âI heard it at Lansdowne! “I heard it in Dundalk!” He remembers.
One of the first to provide an explanation was City Councilor Eric Costello, who said on Twitter that the noise was caused by “a propane tank explosion at the CSX Coal Pier in Curtis Bay.”
His statement that no injuries had been reported was reassuring. But Costello quickly drew criticism with its comment that “the explosion is isolated from the CSX property, with no impact or risk to the community.”
“Lots of blown-out windows in neighboring residences,” replied Kevin Kacin. “It appears to be an impact and a risk for the community.” Others pointed to the air pollution residents potentially suffered from due to the clouds of black smoke.
Costello, at one point, deleted his tweet.
A resident posted pictures of broken windows on the sidewalk. Conaway said one of the windows in his house was knocked out of the frame.
Greg Sawtell, who works in Curtis Bay, said there were several buildings with cracked and damaged windows. Janet Clark said a neighbor told her that a ceiling fan was dropped by the explosion.
Coal stacked high
As to the cause of the explosion, officials at CSX and the Baltimore Fire Department say it is still under investigation.
The silo where coal shipped mainly from West Virginia mines is stored and then transferred to ships was badly damaged, according to a CSX website.
In recent years, $ 60 million in terminal upgrades have been made so that “a large percentage of the coal can go straight from the railcar to a seagoing vessel or coastal barge, eliminating the need to store coal at sea. ground for any duration, âsays CSX.
But today’s photos showed large piles of coal still on the ground.
When asked if the explosion may have emitted fumes or dangerous particles into the neighborhood, a spokesperson for the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) said the state was leaving the railroad to the care to monitor the situation.
âOur airline team is in communication with CSX and is requesting a written report on the incident,â MDE communications director Mark Shaffer said in an email.
Shaffer said agency “emergency responders” were on scene “to support the city of Baltimore firefighters.”
What about the facility’s past compliance with state and federal environmental regulations? Shaffer said he was checking “what air quality permits CSX has for this site and what the history of the application is.”
Conaway, whose family has lived in Curtis Bay since 1999, said the community has suffered from the unhealthy effects of heavy industry for years.
In addition to the massive coal terminal, South Baltimore is home to the BRESCO waste incinerator, medical waste incinerator, rendering plant and the city’s main landfill.
Residents have backed down over the years, protesting that low-income and black neighborhoods struggled with too many unhealthy facilities and industries.
After a struggle of several years, they pushed back the efforts of a New York-based company to install a new waste incinerator in Curtis Bay and were a hub of resistance to the city’s renewal of the contract to send its waste to the nearby BRESCO incinerator, Baltimore’s industries largest source of pollution.
Over a decade ago, Rodette Jones and other Curtis Bay residents established the Filbert Street Garden, a popular community garden and gathering place. Then, in 2019, they had to fight to prevent the city-owned land from being turned into a DPW pumping station.
âEnvironmental justice has been an issue here for many years,â said Conaway. âThis community has been very dedicated to working there. “