Environmental groups and some Curtis Bay residents are pressing the state to tighten pollution safeguards at the CSX coal terminal, saying they're concerned about runoff from the busy facility and about black dust blown onto and into their homes.
Coal exports from the CSX terminal have risen sharply in recent years, said Leah Kelly, an attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project, a Washington-based group. The Baltimore customs district exported 5.1 million tons of coal in the first three months of this year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, trailing only Norfolk and New Orleans in volume of coal shipped overseas.
Curtis Bay, with industries in and around it, is also one of the most polluted communities in the state, contended Lauren Randall of the Sierra Club. It and other groups have urged state environmental regulators to impose new requirements on CSX for controlling stormwater runoff and wind-blown dust from its facility.
The Maryland Department of the Environment has tentatively determined to renew the coal terminal's stormwater permit, which expired three years ago, with minor modifications.
State inspectors determined that runoff from the two piers and nearby coal stockpiles is being adequately contained in a pair of settling ponds, where coal dust and other contaminants are supposed to settle out. The water is further treated to neutralize and disinfect it. Most of the runoff is recycled to spray on the coal piles to control dust.
Robert T. Sullivan, spokesman for the Florida-based rail firm, noted that the coal piers had been there for more than 90 years, and that the rail company was cooperating with the state's review of its pollution control requirements.
"CSX continues to invest steadily in the Curtis Bay facility and it employs leading environmental management technologies to protect employees and the community," Sullivan said in an email. He called the stormwater treatment system "state of the art."
But the ponds are only designed to hold 24 hours' worth of rain from a 10-year storm. Water from anything heavier or more prolonged spills out of the ponds and into a storm sewer that empties into the bay and Stonehouse Cove. A state fact sheet on the facility notes that during one inspection in 2011, water was overflowing for three days after a 3-inch-plus rainfall. The permit allows for the terminal to discharge up to 1.1 million gallons a day.
Several residents who gathered recently at the Polish Home Hall in Curtis Bay said they worried about the water quality in their area and about the soot that they say falls into their wading pools and onto their porches, and even drifts into their homes.
Sallie Hubbard, 41, who lives in the 1400 block of Filbert Ave., said she's noticed a black grime on her furnace filter and even caked on her walls.
"I'm concerned because my kids, they fish and crab in the water," added Edwina Hall, 52, a neighbor whose children are 16 and 17. "And I'm also concerned about their breathing. … Sometimes it smells so bad."
Environmental groups want the state to require CSX to monitor its runoff for more pollutants, especially those known to be associated with coal, such as arsenic, chromium and selenium. They note that the harbor's water quality is considered impaired by floating dirt and dust.
They are also calling on the state to require that the coal piles be covered to reduce airborne dust and storm runoff. Other shipping facilities are enclosed, they say.
Public comment is being taken on the CSX facility's stormwater permit through Friday. The state will review the comments before making a final decision.