Meleny Thomas was standing in the kitchen of her Curtis Bay home one morning late last December when a violent blast of wind knocked her house off its foundation.
“It felt like somebody picked up the house and dropped it back down,” Thomas told Baltimore City Council members Wednesday.
The Dec. 30 blast came from an explosion in a coal silo at a CSX facility 12 blocks from Thomas’ home. The shock wave ripped through the streets of the Curtis Bay community, shattering windows and scaring residents. No one was injured.
Six months after the blast, there is still little information about what caused the explosion.
Thomas and her neighbors attended a City Council hearing Wednesday to demand transparency from CSX, which is investigating the blast, and to decry dangerous living conditions in Curtis Bay, an industrial area in South Baltimore that borders Anne Arundel County. Industrial companies that depend on access to the harbor are concentrated in Curtis Bay, such as a chemical plant, oil refinery, trash landfill and medical waste incinerator.
CSX, the freight railroad based in Jacksonville, Florida, has operated a coal terminal on the bank of Stonehouse Cove and Curtis Bay for 140 years. The facility stores domestic coal on the ground, then loads it aboard ships for export or barges for use in two power plants that provide electricity in the Baltimore area.
CSX did not send a representative to the City Council meeting on its investigation, despite being invited. Cindy Schild, a spokesperson for CSX, declined to say why.
Brian Hammock, CSX vice president of state government affairs, wrote a letter to the council emphasizing the company’s contribution to Baltimore’s economy and its ability to process 8.6 million tons of coal each year. The company is working with federal and state regulators to determine the cause of the explosion, Hammock wrote, and estimates the investigation will be completed by July.
The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration is conducting a separate investigation.
“CSX’s Curtis Bay terminal has been in operation for more than 100 years without incident,” Schild said in a statement. “While the root cause of the incident remains under investigation, CSX has been taking active measures to ensure public safety and improve site conditions.”
The explosion occurred at 11:24 a.m. Dec. 30 at the facility’s pier, where a conveyor belt was moving coal into a transfer tower. It blew panels off the tower and caused a fire that burned a pillar holding the conveyor belt, sending smoke billowing into the air.
Coal dust can explode when it’s in the right concentration in the air and meets a source of ignition.
The facility was closed for a “couple of weeks” in January following the blast, Schild said in February, and had to redirect some trains to different locations before resuming business.
Residents who live near the coal terminal describe the explosion’s impact as similar to an earthquake or a sonic boom. When Thomas called 311 after the explosion, the city’s operator said he, too, felt the blast from miles away.
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“To feel that level of serious impact is concerning,” Thomas said. “My neighbor said it brought back memories of when he was in the service at war and the bombings they experienced. This is trauma that people are enduring with all of these incidents in the community.”
Thomas is the executive director of South Baltimore Community Land Trust, a neighborhood advocacy group. Curtis Bay residents and members of environmental groups described the CSX coal explosion as the latest incident in a long series of environmental injustices rooted in racism that plague the community.
Many people didn’t receive an alert from the city immediately after the explosion, leaving frightened residents wondering whether they needed to evacuate or shelter in place, they told the council.
A cloud of toxic acid leaked into the air in 2017 at a chemical plant in Fairfield, an area just north of Curtis Bay. Workers and residents, including students at Benjamin Franklin High School, had to shelter in place for several hours, two people recalled while testifying. An undetermined amount of chlorosulfonic acid — a powerful, potentially lethal chemical used to make soap and detergents, among other things — leaked from a tanker. No injuries were reported.
In March, a man burned to death at a fuel facility in Curtis Bay. Earnest Cooper, 52, and three other workers were using a water pump to transfer wastewater contaminated with petroleum into a tank when it caught fire and engulfed Cooper. The other workers tried unsuccessfully to extinguish the flames on Cooper, which spread to a building and caused a three-alarm fire. Cooper died at the scene.
Council member Phylicia Porter called for the city to increase enforcement of environmental regulations in South Baltimore in response to the public’s testimony.
“Living in fear of the next disaster is no way to live,” said Porter, who represents the area.
An earlier version of this article attributed a council member's quote incorrectly. It should have been attributed to Phylicia Porter. The Sun regrets the error.