Baltimore port shutdown stokes neighborhood pollution fears

By Hannah Northey | 04/11/2024 01:09 PM EDT

Curtis Bay residents are nervously eyeing mountains of coal near their houses. “There’s just dust everywhere,” one said. “You can’t get away from it.”

Shipping containers are stacked together at the Port of Baltimore, Aug. 12, 2022, in Baltimore.

Shipping containers are stacked together at the Port of Baltimore, Aug. 12, 2022, in Baltimore. Julio Cortez/AP

While President Joe Biden’s visit to Baltimore last week brought national attention to the wreckage of the Francis Scott Key Bridge and the city’s shuttered port, people in neighborhoods just beyond the presidential spotlight were lamenting environmental threats that they say are growing worse by the day.

Residents of the Curtis Bay neighborhood say they are choking on dust blowing from mountains of coal at the port.

“On a daily basis, there’s just dust everywhere,” said Dave Jones, 43, a delivery driver who lives across the street from the coal terminal on Curtis Avenue. “You can’t get away from it.”


Jones and his neighbors have long called for greater oversight of the dust from coal mined in Appalachia, the Illinois Basin and Wyoming’s Powder River Basin and hauled by train to the Port of Baltimore, the nation’s second busiest coal-exporting hub.

In interviews last week, four people who live and work in Curtis Bay said the coal piles at the CSX terminal have grown since a container ship slammed into the Key Bridge on March 26, collapsing the span, killing six bridge workers and blocking the port’s channel.

President Joe Biden, aboard Marine One, takes an aerial tour of the collapsed Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore, April 5, 2024, as seen from an accompanying aircraft.
President Joe Biden, aboard Marine One, takes an aerial tour of the collapsed Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore on Friday, as seen from an accompanying aircraft. | Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

Curtis Bay ranks near the top of neighborhoods nationally for proximity to industrial facilities that use hazardous materials and polluted tracts on the federal Superfund cleanup list. It’s home to the nation’s largest medical waste incinerator, which Maryland regulators recently sued for multiple air quality violations. It also hosts a sprawling landfill as well as oil and gas tank farms.

The area around Curtis Bay ranks in the 94th percentile for toxic air releases and in the 75th percentile for exposure to fine soot particles compared with the rest of Maryland, according to an EJScreen Community Report from EPA. The reports provide environmental and socioeconomic information for certain areas.

Nationally, the report offers a more mixed picture of how the area stacks up. While it ranks in the 47th percentile for soot exposure, it is in the 64th percentile for toxic air releases and in the 86th percentile for soot spawned by diesel exhaust that EPA considers a likely carcinogen.

CSX’s Curtis Bay Coal Piers is one of Baltimore’s two major coal-holding facilities. It handles up to 14 million tons of coal each year.

Neighborhood calls for regulatory oversight of the terminal grew louder in 2021 after an explosion at the CSX site rocked Curtis Bay, shaking homes and blasting out windows.

CSX says it closely monitors air quality at the piers and that sensors installed as part of a high-tech monitoring system are picking up no danger signs. According to the company’s sensors, air quality at the site is “satisfactory” and poses “little or no risk.”

CSX didn’t respond to requests for comment on complaints from the terminal’s neighbors about the coal piles growing higher at its piers in Curtis Bay.

The Florida-based rail company in recent days has also shared that it is working to alleviate disruption tied to the bridge disaster by moving coal to ports in New York and New Jersey. Joe Hinrichs, the rail company’s CEO, revealed in a recent LinkedIn post that talks are ongoing to ship coal that would normally move through Curtis Bay to terminals in Newport News, Virginia, at the Port of Hampton Roads, the nation's biggest coal-exporting hub.

Maryland regulators say they have ramped up oversight of pollution at the coal terminal in the wake of the bridge disaster and are in touch with owners of the coal terminals to ensure they’re suppressing dust while shipping is halted.

Jay Apperson, a spokesperson for the Maryland Department of the Environment, said the state is complying with federal air quality standards and that there has been and continues to be additional air monitoring in Curtis Bay. When asked about concerns of coal piles growing, Apperson said the state is aware that two coal trains traveling to the terminal before the bridge collapse had been received last week.

“The community of Curtis Bay is close to the site, and all of Baltimore's port communities will play a pivotal role in our state's recovery,” Apperson said. “We are doing everything we can to keep lines of communication open with the community. Their health and safety is very important to us.”

But those who live and work in Curtis Bay remain unmoved and are calling for state regulators not to renew a five-year air quality operating permit for the terminal, which is currently under review. They point to a recent study that residents of Curtis Bay, researchers at Johns Hopkins University and state regulators released last year confirming that coal particles were present throughout communities around the terminal, including homes, near businesses, a park and a school.

Benida Gore, 62, who lives and works in Curtis Bay, said she’s seen the coal piles grow higher since the bridge disaster and is eager to get more information about air quality in her area.

“The piles are getting higher,” Gore said. “CSX says everything is OK, but a lot of people feel it’s not.”

Greg Sawtell, a director with the South Baltimore Community Land Trust who works in Curtis Bay, said the state's own research shows coal dust is present throughout the community, even as city and state leaders cast coal exports as a boon for Baltimore. Sawtell said he hopes the state will either deny a permit for the piers in the coming months or require that the coal piles be enclosed.

"There's just an assumption that everyone's going to go along with the idea that it's just obvious that there's tremendous economic benefits to the host communities that are right next to it," Sawtell said. "We're not seeing it."

Booming business

Baltimore has been in the forefront of a national coal export surge that came as domestic consumption waned amid the closures of U.S. coal-fired power plants.

Last year, the U.S. exported about 100 million short tons of coal — the bulk of it going to India. About half of that was metallurgical coal used to make steel, while the rest was steam coal used for powering and heating, according to federal data.

Only Hampton Roads shipped more coal last year than Baltimore, which accounted for a third of the nation’s coal exports last year.

Baltimore shipped about 19 million short tons of steam or thermal coal last year, up from an average of 12 million short tons in previous years, according to federal data. The port exported a smaller but growing amount of metallurgical coal, between 6 million and 10 million short tons, from 2019 to 2023.

That coal has moved through the Curtis Bay Piers, one of Baltimore's two full-service coal terminals. The second is the Consol Energy terminal, which is served by both CSX and Norfolk Southern railroads.

Federal energy analysts say a complete closure of Baltimore's port through at least May will likely have a short-term ripple effect on the nation's coal exports. The U.S. Energy Information Administration on Tuesday projected that U.S. coal exports in 2024 would fall 5.3 percent below 2023 levels, a drop from last month's prediction of a 1 percent growth over last year. The agency now expects exports to drop 33 percent in April and 20 percent for May before recovering in late summer.

When asked about the bridge collapse, CSX in a statement said operations at several terminals west of the Key Bridge were affected, restricting some intermodal activity and the shipments of certain commodities, including coal.

The company confirmed it’s launched a dedicated service between Baltimore and other ports, including New York, to help mitigate supply chain disruptions and explore alternative transportation solutions for customers.

CSX defended its management of the Curtis Bay facility and said its operations adhere to “strict regulatory standards,” adding the company “is deeply committed to safe and environmentally sound operations at the Curtis Bay Piers facility and values the collaboration with community leaders, as well as with state regulators and policymakers.”

CSX said it’s invested $60 million in improvements to the Curtis Bay facility and is taking measures to control dust at the site, including an automated dust suppression system with water sprayers. CSX also noted that it recently developed a fence line monitoring system that has been installed to monitor particulate matter along the perimeter of the property and gather real-time data on area conditions.

But Matthew Tejada, senior vice president of environmental health at the Natural Resources Defense Council and the former director of EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice, said it’s important to acknowledge what the community is witnessing, especially among residents who have long raised concern about coal dust landing on their homes, schools and bodies.

“It is coal, it's pure coal and it's very fine,” said Tejada. “You typically get the finest particles … the stuff that disperses over the greatest parts of the community that can penetrate furthest into your lungs. So many of the toxic pollutants you're worried about from when you're burning coal are just supercharged when you're actually inhaling un-combusted coal.”

‘Overburdened’ community

Curtis Bay and its neighboring communities straddling the Patapsco River in South Baltimore have a long and complex demographic history, marked by waves of immigration, the spread of industry and the displacement of historically Black communities.

Chloe Ahmann, an assistant professor of anthropology at Cornell University who wrote a book about environmental justice on the South Baltimore peninsula, said Curtis Bay and several nearby neighborhoods were annexed by the city of Baltimore in the 1900s. At the time, the peninsula was home to both predominantly white enclaves like Brooklyn and Curtis Bay, as well as historically Black communities like Fairfield and Wagner’s Point. While thousands of residents remain in areas like Curtis Bay and Brooklyn, others with roots elsewhere on the peninsula were displaced as industry expanded. Today, Ahmann said formerly segregated neighborhoods are increasingly organizing together.

But Jones and his Curtis Bay neighbors say they've yet to see relief.

Jones said he grew up in Curtis Bay and bought his grandfather’s house on Curtis Avenue 26 years ago. At first he continually caulked windows on the outside of the house to keep dust out and painted the exterior, but the dust overwhelmed him.

“It became, ‘What's the point?'" Jones said in a telephone interview. “The house just turns black.”

Research has shown there are health effects from prolonged exposure to coal dust or soot — classified as “particulate matter” under federal law — including increased rates of asthma, but those effects hinge on sampling and the size of particles detected.

A 2017 study of Norfolk's Lambert's Point coal terminal by the Virginia Department of Health found the concentration of coal dust near the sampling sites were below federal threshold air quality levels and thus "not expected to harm people's health." That study examined particles measuring 10 microns or less.

EPA moved in February to strengthen federal regulations on much soot particles that are much tinier and thus more likely to lodge in the lungs. That agency said the tighter restrictions would save thousands of lives.

Only recently did Curtis Bay residents join forces with state regulators and researchers to find data to confirm their long-standing fear that coal dust was widespread throughout the area.

Last year, the results of an investigation were released that found coal dust from the terminal had made its way throughout Curtis Bay.

Now, that investigation — a collaboration among the Maryland Department of the Environment, Community of Curtis Bay Association, South Baltimore Community Land Trust, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at the University of Maryland — is poised to be considered as state regulators decide whether to approve an operating permit for the CSX terminal.

According to the study, coal dust particles were detected at all eight community sampling locations and in all samples taken in August, September and October of 2023. That included samples taken at homes, near businesses, at a church, at a park and at a school up to about three-fourths of a mile away from the piers.

The study also found that more visible dark dust was found closer to the coal terminal than farther away, and both small and large particles were found throughout the community.

“Coal dust finds its way into the community on a day-to-day basis and is correlated with both activity at the coal terminal and wind direction,” the study said. “We detected the signature of coal dust leaving the terminal’s fenceline on average nearly once every hour and a half.”

Permit fight

“CSX is aware of the report being released by the Community of Curtis Bay Association,” the company wrote in a statement. “We are listening and take concerns raised by the community in which we operate seriously.”

Apperson with Maryland’s environment department acknowledged the state’s role in the study and said the findings will be weighed during the permit renewal. Apperson said that while some sensors used in the collaborative study found higher levels of pollution, an indication that Curtis Bay is “overburdened” with pollution, the state is complying with federal air quality standards.

“We are evaluating additional dust control in the pending renewal of the CSX Coal Piers' operating permit,” Apperson said. “We are incorporating the latest science in our evaluation of the pending permit, and we will seek public input on a draft of the permit when it's ready.”

Maryland Secretary of the Environment Serena McIlwain, who met with residents in Curtis Bay last year, told CBS in an interview that the state is taking steps to protect the community.

"We're doing everything we can to make sure that this community is taken seriously and that we're monitoring air and we're monitoring any kind of environmental issue in this community," McIlwain said.

Sawtell with the South Baltimore Community Land Trust said the question now is how and whether the state will respond to Curtis Bay’s call for the operating permit to be nixed and a shift away from coal.

“We're just being told over and over again that it would be just absolutely catastrophic not to have the coal flowing,” Sawtell said. “We're calling for denial of this permit.”

Reporters Sean Reilly and Timothy Cama contributed.