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Baltimore City

CSX faces more than $121,000 in OSHA violation penalties after December coal explosion in Curtis Bay

CSX is facing more than $121,000 worth of penalties for a group of serious OSHA violations stemming from a December explosion at its coal facility in Curtis Bay, the U.S. Department of Labor said Monday.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited CSX for allowing workers to enter hazardous tunnels — where they could be exposed to coal dust and other toxins — without respirators, for using equipment in the tunnels that wasn’t safe for hazardous areas, for not testing the air in the tunnels before workers entered, and for inadequate training and emergency planning.

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In a statement, CSX spokeswoman Cindy Schild said the company is “committed to ensuring the health and safety of our employees and neighboring communities.”

“We have been in communication with OSHA regarding its June 29th letter and are scheduled to discuss the alleged violations with the agency,” she said.

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The company has until July 26 to contest the citations, said Leni Fortson, a spokeswoman for the Department of Labor. CSX has requested a meeting to discuss the matter but has not issued an appeal, she said.

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 company also owns Baltimore’s Howard Street Tunnel.

The explosion on the morning of Dec. 30 rocked Curtis Bay and could be heard across the city. The exact cause of the blast has not been released, but city officials said at the time that coal dust buildup on a conveyor belt was to blame. No one was injured in the explosion, but nearby residents reported shattered windows and other damage in its wake.

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Investigators determined that on Dec. 30, employees entered the facility’s North Tunnel and Northwest Escape Tunnel to complete certain work, such as unclogging blocked equipment, and 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 OSHA investigation also found that CSX did not have a written respiratory protection program, nor were the tunnels properly designated as hazardous workspaces.

In the Northwest Escape Tunnel, certain equipment — such as a control panel, overhead lighting, an outlet and an electrical transformer — was not explosion-proof as required.

Multiple agencies are investigating the cause and the events surrounding the explosion, including CSX and Maryland’s Occupational and Safety and Health division. Brian Hammock, CSX vice president of state government affairs, said in June that the company’s investigation will be finished this month.

At the time of the explosion, CSX supervisors tasked with cargo-handling operations involving coal transfer were not provided with accident-prevention training or courses, according to OSHA.

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OSHA identified nine serious violations, each with a proposed penalty of $11,000 to $15,000. Two additional citations, which were classified as “other than serious,” stated that the company failed to provide documentation of carbon monoxide testing and failed to create a site-specific emergency action plan for the area near the explosion.

The federal health and safety agency has previously cited the interstate railroad operator for repeated efforts to retaliate against employees who report safety concerns. In 2021, 2020, 2016 and 2010, OSHA ordered CSX to pay back wages to employees who were fired in separate incidents after reporting hazards in various states.

During a Baltimore City Council hearing last month, residents and advocates decried a lack of communication from city officials about the cause of the blast, which set a tower in the facility aflame and halted operations for a few weeks in January, forcing trains to be redirected to other locations. CSX did not send a representative to the hearing.

Residents spoke about their concerns about environmental hazards in Curtis Bay, which is home to a number of industrial facilities, including a landfill and a medical waste incinerator. In March, 52-year-old Earnest Cooper was killed when he caught fire at a fuel facility in Curtis Bay.

“The action OSHA is taking validates what residents in Curtis Bay have been saying since the explosion — but long before — which is that it’s not safe to be living in close proximity to a giant coal pile,” said Greg Sawtell, a board member for the Community of Curtis Bay Association and zero-waste communities director at the South Baltimore Community Land Trust.

Sawtell said the community association would like to see the Maryland Department of the Environment step in and require the company to “address fundamental safety issues and also to begin to truly mitigate and pay for the harms that they’ve done,” in addition to requiring air quality monitoring from the company.

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In a statement, Maryland Department of the Environment spokesman Jay Apperson said, “MDE has been awaiting the results of OSHA’s investigation, and is now reviewing that agency’s findings and evaluating further regulatory steps, including a potential enforcement action.”

In the aftermath of the explosion, the department launched a “targeted compliance effort at the CSX facility and other permitted sources in Curtis Bay.”

Apperson also pointed to an effort by community groups, alongside Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland, to install air monitors in the neighborhood. That equipment has just started monitoring, but the data hasn’t yet been analyzed, he said.

“MDE’s air monitoring experts are supporting the university and community representatives’ deployment of the monitoring network, including helping to evaluate where monitors should be placed,” Apperson said. “Also, MDE installed a black carbon monitor, which is used to measure diesel particulates.”

The effort to establish an air-monitoring network was “a completely community effort,” said Ray Conaway, president of the Community of Curtis Bay Association. His group is hoping for more leadership from MDE to help install more monitors close to or within the facility, he added.

Sawtell said that long-term he would also like to see city officials reconsider whether to continue allowing such a large quantity of coal to be handled within city limits. The CSX facility in Curtis Bay is close to a park and recreation center where children frequently play, Sawtell said.

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Conaway said the report from OSHA validates the community’s decadeslong struggle and is prime evidence that more ought to be done to protect residents — and repay them.

“It shows they don’t care about their workers, so they obviously don’t care about the neighborhood,” said Conaway, a neighborhood resident since 1999.

Conaway, who lives roughly 3 1/2 blocks away from the explosion site, said coal dust is a part of life in some parts of Curtis Bay.

“There’s not a day that goes by that there’s not a dusting of coal on my vehicle,” he said. “And sometimes, I pray for the rain to come by and wash it off, or else I have to wash it through a car wash.”

Recently, the South Baltimore Community Land Trust purchased several homes on Hazel Street near the CSX facility, said its executive director, Meleny Thomas. The vacant homes had been damaged by fire several years ago, and the group plans to rehabilitate them and seek local residents interested in becoming homeowners.

So she’s hopeful that companies like CSX will bring community associations like hers to the table to discuss improvements, as attracting homeowners will be more difficult with an unsafe facility across the street.

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“We don’t want that to be our welcome any longer,” Thomas said.


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