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Coal plant explosion should be a wake-up call | COMMENTARY

Damage from last week's coal dust explosion is seen on the coal transfer tower of the CSX coal terminal in Curtis Bay on Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021, in Baltimore. An explosion at the facility created a loud boom, but officials said no injuries were reported. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun).
Damage from last week's coal dust explosion is seen on the coal transfer tower of the CSX coal terminal in Curtis Bay on Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021, in Baltimore. An explosion at the facility created a loud boom, but officials said no injuries were reported. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun). (Jerry Jackson/AP)

Late Thursday morning, an explosion in Curtis Bay rattled buildings, broke windows and likely frayed some nerves. A buildup of coal dust at the CSX Coal Plant Building was blamed for the blast, which could be heard — and felt — from miles away. Thankfully, no one was seriously injured, according to CSX and the Baltimore Fire Department, and the incident remains under investigation. But it was a reminder, at least to local residents, of the downside of living in the shadow of the coal terminal. Its great mounds of pulverized black coal are loaded by conveyor belts into ships headed overseas, and the dust and grit often blown into local streets, windowsills and backyards, raising concerns about the long-term health and environmental consequences.

Yet that silo explosion, for all its thunder and fright, is far from the worst consequence of shipping coal. What ought to frighten Baltimoreans as much as any detonation of coal dust is how much harm these enormous shipments of combustible black rocks, totaling as much as 20 million tons yearly, are doing to the planet. Baltimore and Norfolk, Virginia, are chief East Coast enablers in dispatching U.S.-mined coal to the world. This highly polluting fuel, increasingly considered too harmful to be burned in this country, is being sent to other places with more lax environmental protections, yet the net effect is still much more pollution — including greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change.

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Maryland is taking extraordinary steps to lower its own carbon footprint by tightening energy conservation measures and investing in off-shore wind, solar and other renewal energy sources, but what good does that do if Baltimore continues to export the dirtiest fossil fuel of all? It doesn’t matter if the coal is burned in Maryland or Europe or Asia, greenhouse gases are still greenhouse gases. As the planet’s temperature continues to rise, a waterfront state like Maryland is placed squarely in harm’s way by rising sea levels and worsening weather. There is no comfort in knowing that facilities like the CSX terminal might be among the early casualties of higher tides and storm surges in the years to come.

Of course, it’s easy to look the other way. The coal is mined elsewhere (including neighboring West Virginia), and it’s those communities that must deal with the most obvious harms of groundwater pollution, black lung disease, coal fires and the like. And there are jobs at the terminal. As we’ve noted before, Port of Baltimore jobs are among the best paying around for blue collar workers. It’s not easy to say no to them — even recognizing that the assembly of off-shore wind turbines at nearby places like Sparrows Point hold far greater long-term, sustainable employment opportunities. Yet at what point do we act in our self-interest and realize that enough is enough? We are contributing to a disaster by feeding the world’s coal addiction.

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Rarely has that been made more obvious than in recent weeks with Colorado experiencing the most destructive wildfires in its history and communities around the globe recording unusually high temperatures and extreme weather. Think last week in Baltimore was warm? On Dec. 26, Kodiak Island recorded a high temperature of 67 degrees, a statewide record for Alaska. Forecasters predict more extreme weather ahead. Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, tornadoes, hurricanes, these are just some of the consequences of ignoring climate change.

The future is not in this highly polluting 19th century energy technology. And whatever profits are being made at the port through exporting coal, humanity is destined to pay too great a price for them. No doubt there are remedies to prevent future coal dust explosions. Such discharges are unintended. But what can’t be addressed by CSX, or by anyone else, is that the coal leaving Baltimore is destined to be used exactly as intended — to be burned with the resulting carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, mercury and toxic hydrocarbons causing great damage to the air, land and water.

How much longer can we turn a blind eye to this? How many more explosions before we wake up to how the jobs at Baltimore’s coal terminal come with far too high a price for us all? The day can’t arrive too soon.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.

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