Two Curtis Bay residents filed a proposed class-action lawsuit against freight railroad CSX on Tuesday, escalating the community’s demand for relief from the company’s coal facility that some residents say is hazardous to their health and property.
CSX operates a coal terminal on the bank of Stonehouse Cove and Curtis Bay in South Baltimore, an industrial area on the border of Anne Arundel County. A buildup of methane inside a tunnel caused a silo to explode and rip through the surrounding community Dec. 30. Outraged residents pointed to the incident as the latest in a series of examples of environmental injustice. No one was injured in the blast, which shattered windows and damaged houses.
“People are standing up and saying that this explosion was clearly a breaking point. They’re saying, ‘We can’t take this anymore. We won’t take this anymore,’” said Greg Sawtell, co-president of the Community of Curtis Bay Association. Neither Sawtell nor the association is a party in the lawsuit.
Cheyenne Shongo and Kennett Walker, both of Curtis Bay, filed the proposed class action in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. They and a proposed class of residents are seeking a minimum of $5 million in damages from CSX for negligence, private nuisance and trespassing. If approved by a judge, the resident class would encompass the entire Curtis Bay neighborhood, including two public schools and a recreation center.
It is not clear when a judge could make such a ruling.
The complaint alleges that an unreasonable amount of coal dust drifts from CSX’s facility and covers people’s cars and houses. It also claims the dust is frequently inhaled by residents, which poses health risks because burning coal can release carcinogenic substances. As part of the lawsuit, residents are aiming to establish a a financial fund that they would use to test for and treat certain diseases that could develop from coal exposure, such as cancer, lead poisoning or pneumoconiosis, known as “black lung,” said Jonathan Nace, Shongo’s and Walker’s attorney.
Community groups installed air monitors in the neighborhood after the explosion to collect data on air pollution.
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Cindy Schild, a CSX spokesperson, said in a statement that CSX received the lawsuit Tuesday and is reviewing the allegations.
“The Curtis Bay facility has been operating for over 140 years without an incident like this; fortunately last year’s event did not result in any injuries. We have been working with federal and state environmental and safety officials since it occurred. CSX remains committed to the safety and health of our employees and our neighboring communities,” Schild said in a statement.
The December explosion sparked a series of inspections by environmental and occupational health agencies and subsequent fines for violations. There have been several investigations, including one by CSX itself, into what caused the silo to detonate. CSX officials said in August that a conveyor belt tunnel used to load coal into ships on the facility’s north side was inadequately ventilated, allowing methane to build up inside and consequently explode.
In July, investigators with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration determined that employees entering the facility’s north tunnel and northwest escape tunnel to complete certain work, such as unclogging blocked equipment, were not wearing respirators as required, despite the possibility of exposure to coal dust or methane gas. The air in the tunnels was also not tested for carbon monoxide before the workers entered, OSHA found. The agency fined CSX more than $120,000 for the violations.
The facility now has industrial ventilation fans that significantly increase airflow and employees monitor the insides of tunnels for gas and particulate matter, Brian Hammock, director of state affairs for the Jacksonville, Florida-based railroad, said in August.
Councilwoman Phylicia Porter, who represents Curtis Bay, said she is supportive of the residents’ legal action and their pursuit to protect the community’s health and safety.
“I stand by my statement that negligence to this degree is not a mistake nor an oversight; it is a choice. It is no exaggeration to say that sending workers without adequate training into tunnels that have not been tested for harmful toxins — is to endanger the entire surrounding community,” Porter said in a statement.