Nearly a year after a CSX coal silo explosion rocked Curtis Bay, residents marched to the coal pier Wednesday to demand the end of coal exports from South Baltimore.
Despite afternoon rain and thunderclaps, more than 50 people gathered to march from the Curtis Bay Recreation Center to the fence outside the CSX coal terminal on the bank of Stonehouse Cove, chanting “Put a hex on CSX” and “No more coal, no more oil, keep the carbon in the soil.”
On Dec. 30, built-up methane in a tunnel caused a silo to explode, shattering windows and damaging homes. No one was injured in the incident, but residents have pointed to the explosion as the latest evidence of long-standing environmental injustices.
Holding signs with slogans such as “coal = death,” activists demanded a suspension of coal exports from Baltimore as jets of water sprayed the huge coal dust pile on the other side of the fence.
“Even before the explosion, the experience for people in Curtis Bay is there is coal in people’s homes,” said Shashawnda Campbell, an organizer with the South Baltimore Community Land Trust, in an interview.
Campbell said it shouldn’t have taken an explosion for residents’ environmental concerns to garner attention. “People talk about not opening their windows for 20 years,” she said. “No one should be living like that. Not one person should be living like that.”
At an August City Council hearing on the explosion’s cause, residents called for an ordinance banning the exportation of coal from Baltimore, similar to a measure approved in Richmond, California.
District 10 Councilwoman Phylicia Porter addressed staff from the mayor’s office at the council hearing, saying she would follow through on residents’ demands that CSX suspend operations at the coal terminal. Reached by phone Wednesday, Porter said she supported the residents of Curtis Bay in their efforts.
CSX spokesperson Cindy Schild said in a statement that CSX was committed to safe and environmentally sound operations at all of its facilities and that since the explosion, the company has worked to improve airflow and monitored air to prevent the buildup of methane.
“The Curtis Bay facility has been operating for over 140 years without an incident like the one that occurred last December which fortunately did not result in any injuries,” Schild said in the statement. “We’ve exceeded government and industry requirements in addressing the issues caused by the truly unprecedented incident that occurred at Curtis Bay last winter and will continue to work with officials and the community alike to exceed all standards in remediating and monitoring the site.”
Curtis Bay is also home to a landfill, the Patapsco Wastewater Treatment plant and a medical waste incinerator, leading activists to dub it a “sacrifice zone” where industry impacts residents who can’t afford to move.
The profit CSX makes from exporting coal to other countries does not benefit the Black and brown residents of Curtis Bay, said Dr. Nicole Fabricant, an organizer with the South Baltimore Community Land Trust and an anthropology professor at Towson University.
Angela Shaneyfelt, who lives blocks away from the coal terminal, said she would move elsewhere if she could. Shaneyfelt described the explosion as traumatic, scaring her kids. She is one of the residents who refuses to open her windows because of coal dust.
Carlos Sanchez, 17, a youth leader, said his parents felt the blast from their Lakeland home. Sanchez has been organizing with the South Baltimore Community Land Trust because he is concerned about how the coal dust affects the health of Curtis Bay residents — and the city as a whole.
“Air isn’t — it’s not picky,” Sanchez said. “It affects everybody. ... We can’t keep just living with these incinerators, this open-air coal pile.”
In October, two Curtis Bay residents filed a proposed class-action lawsuit against CSX in the U.S. District Court in Baltimore. In their complaint, Cheyenne Shongo and Kennett Walker said an unreasonable amount of coal dust drifts from CSX’s facility to people’s homes and cars, where residents inhale it.
Demonstrators said Curtis Bay residents disproportionately suffer from diseases such as asthma and cancer, leading to shorter lives on average than other Baltimore residents have.
At the August council hearing, Ray Conaway, co-president of the Community of Curtis Bay Association, displayed a chart showing that residents in Cherry Hill, Brooklyn, Curtis Bay and Hawkins Point had shorter life expectancies than people living in Greater Charles Village, Barclay, Poplar Grove and Upper Roland Park
“We’re going to keep the pressure going. We’re going to keep escalating,” Campbell said. “This is 20 years shaved off our lives.”
Activists are planning another march for Dec. 17, with a holiday theme that echoes demonstrators’ chants of “No coal for Christmas.”