An explosion at the CSX facility—the second largest coal export pier on the East Coast—in South Baltimore on Dec. 30 is just the latest example of Baltimore City government working in lockstep with private industry and prioritizing their interests while sacrificing residents’ health and well-being.

With worker control, community ownership, and serious regulation, the residents of Curtis Bay would be prioritized over profits.

The explosion occurred at the coal transfer tower of the CSX Curtis Bay Pier in Curtis Bay, but the effects of the explosion were felt all over the city of Baltimore. Windows exploded and glass shattered into the streets. Some residents described it as feeling like a “bomb”; others compared it to an “earthquake.” How many more public safety crises like this will it take for Baltimore City leaders to learn that we need worker-led and community-owned development now, and regulations with teeth? 

With worker control, community ownership, and serious regulation, the residents of Curtis Bay would be prioritized over profits.

It was not always this way. The South Baltimore region was once a beautiful peninsula that, as recently as the early 20th century, was filled with fruit trees, row homes, and access to waterways where there was an abundance of fish and fishermen. Much of that ended when Baltimore City leaders made a decision to annex this region from Anne Arundel County to the City of Baltimore in 1918 and, subsequently, CEOs aligned with city officials chose to make the Curtis Bay area a sacrifice zone. Annexation gave the city more control over this region for industrial zoning, which led to the expansion of and transport of oil and other non-renewable fossil fuel industries such as coal in the early 20th century. Surrounding towns were completely razed in the fifties to accommodate the expansion of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad’s Curtis Bay terminal, which led to more fertilizer and chemical companies in the area. 

Annexation gave the city more control over this region for industrial zoning, which led to the expansion of and transport of oil and other non-renewable fossil fuel industries like coal in the early 20th century.

Since then, the Curtis Bay community has been routinely sacrificed for the benefit of extractive and exploitative industry, with human bodies regularly treated as expendable resources to be exploited (or disposed of) in the interests of capital accumulation. Risk and hazards have been commonplace in Curtis Bay throughout the 20th century. Industrial-grade fires were quite common on the peninsula, the first of which occurred in 1911 at the United States Asphalt Refining Company. The fire raged for more than 26 hours and two boats were required to help extinguish the fire by pumping water from the Patapsco River. 

But for Baltimore City, which has routinely placed its toxic industries and dumps in Curtis Bay, what is out of sight—hidden miles from the downtown area of Baltimore—remains out of mind. Until, that is, a massive explosion like the one late last month occurs and reminds the public that all of our safety and health is at risk. 

The CSX coal pier located in Curtis Bay is the second largest export coal pier on the East Coast—and the local community does not reap the economic benefit of any of the coal revenue.

The CSX coal pier located in Curtis Bay is the second largest export coal pier on the East Coast—and the local community does not reap the economic benefit of any of the coal revenue. In 2017, the coal terminal exported 9 million tons of coal. In 2017, coal exports were up 19% from the previous year. Most of the coal at the pier was being exported out to France, Ukraine and Japan. The coal arrives at CNX from mines in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio. When driving into Curtis Bay, one notices the 130-car trains that transport open-air coal to the pier, which are dumped into the pile surrounding the community of Curtis Bay and then shipped en route to customers in 23 different states. The company, CNX Marine Terminals, only has 41 employees in Baltimore—14 salaried and 27 hourly.

A few years ago, in 2017, the Curtis Bay community experienced a lockdown; residents were told to “shelter in place” and keep windows and doors locked as Solvay USA INC, a chemical plant, leaked chlorosulfonic acid (a powerful and lethal chemical used to make soaps and detergents) from a tanker. Hazardous industries are often located in areas like Curtis Bay due to cheap lands and perceptions that Brown, Black, and impoverished white bodies are merely expendable in the interests of capital.

The health cost is felt most powerfully by the local community. For example, coal dust, a product of the port’s daily import and export work, contains heavy metals that can be lethal, including selenium, chromium, arsenic, mercury, and lead. Dust flies off of piles of coal being loaded and unloaded onto the CSX Chesapeake Coal terminal Pier—while a park and a recreation center lie directly in front of this large black coal mound. Coal dust has accumulated in the lungs of residents. Simultaneously, it has seeped into the soils. Some coal dust particles are microscopic, less than 2.5 microns. Inhaling coal dust has been linked to respiratory illnesses like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and emphysema. The dust has also elevated the risk of cancers. 

While there were no noted “fatalities” in the most recent incident, there will be long-term effects for local residents and businesses. Most likely, workers and residents will suffer illness and many forms of disability from poor air quality as a result of this concentrated exposure.

But coal is just one of the many harmful industries located in Curtis Bay. The city of Baltimore has also utilized these lands not just as a dumping ground for toxins and chemicals, but also to expand waste facilities. From oil and gas to trash and medical waste incinerators, to landfills, all have wreaked havoc upon soil, waterways, and lands. The entire Curtis Bay community suffers from policies that concentrate toxins in their neighborhoods and, ultimately, inside of their bodies. 

The entire Curtis Bay community suffers from policies that concentrate toxins in their neighborhoods and, ultimately, inside of their bodies.

From 2005 to 2009, the Curtis Bay zip code (21226) ranked among the top ten zip codes in the country for the quantity of air toxins released, and it ranked first in the country for toxic air pollution from stationary sources, with 20.6 to 21.6 million pounds of air pollutants released into the atmosphere each year. In 2012-2013, the Environmental Integrity Project research team noted that as a result of the cumulative effects of stationary toxic industries, Curtis Bay and the neighboring Brooklyn community is one of the highest-risk areas in the nation for respiratory problems.

Of particular importance is the incineration of toxic garbage and medical waste in Curtis Bay. It has made it hard for many living on the South Baltimore Peninsula to breathe. Incineration produces mercury and dioxin pollution. Mercury can lead to immune system failure and lung and kidney damage. Dioxin is a known carcinogen that is able to disrupt hormones and reduce fertility. It is one of the most toxic chemicals known to mankind.

It is well beyond time for all of us to end the addiction to fossil fuels and “bury and burn” strategies of dealing with our waste. The extractive economy of coal, oil, gas, and plastics, which are all housed on the South Baltimore Peninsula, only exacerbates the ecological and humanitarian crisis. Implementing zero-waste facilities now would reduce the need for the extraction of non-renewable fossil fuels through reduction of consumption and re-use. 

Baltimore is poised to receive $641 million in federal funding for COVID-19 relief and the city should allot a portion of the funding to initiate a zero-waste jobs and education center, including a compost facility, in Curtis Bay as a small beginning to pay reparations for all the damage that the city has caused to this community. This would cost approximately $50 million, and community activists and residents have already been working alongside labor unions to map the plan for the facility.

The South Baltimore Community Land Trust has even identified a 64-acre site to house a compost facility plus a campus for the growing zero waste sector in Baltimore. Reuse, composting, and recycling create 10 times as many jobs as burning and burying materials. At the same time, communities and institutions across the city are calling for a community- and worker-owned compost facility as an important intervention to stop the burning and burying of food scraps.

It has been nearly two years since local residents and experts wrote one of the most progressive zero-waste plans in the nation. Baltimore’s Fair Development Plan for Zero Waste outlines the root causes of the waste crisis and how it intersects with racial and economic injustices; it also outlines a course for a just transition from an economy of extraction to one of reuse and regeneration. The climate and the waste crisis are interconnected, and the plan recognizes how to address both simultaneously. The city council voted to implement it in March of 2020.  

In order to truly make Black and Brown neighborhoods matter in Baltimore, we need investments from Baltimore City in zero waste and the will to make alternate forms of economic development happen now.

Despite the clear need and recent city legislation to reduce harm and create green industries for Curtis Bay residents, city and institutional leaders are again dragging their feet. This is especially criminal in light of not only the historic exploitation of Curtis Bay but the explosion at the coal transfer tower just days ago at the CSX pier. City leaders—no matter their progressive political rhetoric—appear to be content with empty platitudes, such as the ones used by Brandon Scott with the Baltimore Brew in October of 2020. “Under my administration, we’re going to work to not burn as much at the incinerator as possible,” Scott said. “And I will work my butt off to make sure that this is the last time we ever give them a new contract.” 

Statements like this only confuse when city officials fail to put significant resources towards zero-waste infrastructure. 

In a Jan. 3 op-ed responding to the CSX explosion, The Baltimore Sun editorial team declared that the CSX fire should be a “wake up call” for Baltimore to stop housing coal for export, which is exacerbating the climate crisis. The Sun, typically, missed the mark, sidestepping the local toxic disaster and issues of racism and classism, which they might have been able to mitigate by holding our local leaders accountable, to instead attempt to address a global disaster that is beyond them. The op-ed is a missed opportunity to connect coal to other harmful industries (the extractive economy is intimately tied to our waste infrastructure) that wreak havoc upon Black and Brown bodies and are supported and funded by local politicians working with the private sector.

The truth is plain to see on the ground. Residents are exposed to serious illness despite the hollow promises of change. In order to truly make Black and Brown neighborhoods matter in Baltimore, we need investments from Baltimore City in zero waste and the will to make alternate forms of economic development happen now. We want community-owned and community-controlled industrial development that does not sacrifice the health and environment for profit. These zero-waste industries will bring good, unionized jobs while simultaneously diverting materials from trash incineration and landfills to green, zero-waste forms of industrial development.

We need real solutions from Brandon Scott’s administration, not more of the same empty progressive rhetoric that does nothing to mitigate exposure to toxicity for Curtis Bay residents. As we are dealing with multiple and intersecting crises—a never-ending public health crisis, climate change, and economic fallout—we must begin to transition as quickly as possible to zero-waste infrastructure. The time is now in Curtis Bay. There has never been more urgency.

Nicole Fabricant

Nicole Fabricant teaches anthropology at Towson University and organizes with the South Baltimore Land Trust in Curtis Bay. Her book Fighting to Breathe: Race, Toxicity and the Rise of Youth Activism in Baltimore (Fall 2022, University of California Press) traces the history of industrial pollution, cumulative health impacts, and the rise of youth activism on the South Baltimore peninsula.