NEWS After a century of industrial accidents and toxic exposures, Curtiss Bay residents say they’ve had enough

After a century of industrial accidents and toxic exposures, Curtiss Bay residents say they've had enough

Marchers who stood in the rain outside the gates of the CSX coal facility in Curtis Bay — holding signs that read “Coal Kills” and chanting “CSX must go!” — tied their protest to the grim anniversary .

It’s been nearly a year since an explosion at the railroad’s coal terminal rocked this south Baltimore neighborhood, sending terrified residents to the floor as windows shattered and black soot sprinkled streets, cars and backyards.

Since the Dec. 30 explosion, officials at the Jacksonville, Fla.-based company said they have installed ventilation fans and made other changes to prevent such incidents in the future.

Meanwhile, the state’s environmental regulator has largely followed the lead of federal OSHA officials, who fined the railroad $121,000 for workplace violations.

It would be unacceptable if the reaction ended there, said speakers at last week’s rally, which drew about 60 people to the gates of the sprawling transshipment facility, where the usual pile of coal lay.

Curtis Bay resident Terriq Thompson said: “One fine for the daily threat to our health is not reducing it, nor is it giving us the transition we need from coal to a safe, non-toxic material we can use.”

“One-off fines for everyday threats to our health won’t solve the problem” – Terriq Thompson.

“I haven’t opened a window in 15 years,” said Angela Shaneyfelt, who, like many residents, said coal dust was everywhere in Curtis Bay.

Shaneyfelt lives just blocks from the CSX Curtiss Bay Terminal, where coal from Appalachia by rail has been transferred to barges and ships at Stonehouse Cove for the past 140 years.

“I like fresh air. But we have nothing here.”

“As a mother, I’ve never been so scared,” Angela Shanifert said, recalling the Dec. 30 explosion at the coal mining facility. (JM Giordano)

Map from the 2012 Environmental Integrity Project report, Air Quality Profiles for Curtis Bay, Brooklyn, and Hawkins Point, Maryland.

Map from the 2012 Environmental Integrity Project Report: Air Quality Profiles for Curtis Bay, Brooklyn, and Hawkins
Maryland point. (The most recent EIP report is here.)

industrial takeover

Among other things, protesters called on Baltimore officials to force the company to stop storing and transshipping coal at its site at 1910 Benhill Avenue.

Councilwoman for the area, Phylicia Porter, has spoken out in support of them.

Elected officials in the port city of Richmond, Calif. took exactly that step. The city council voted to ban coal storage in 2020, sparking lawsuits that eventually led to a deal between the two companies to end the practice by 2027.

“They acted to protect the health of workers and residents,” said Sasha Winda Campbell, leader of the South Baltimore Community Land Trust, who started her activism while attending Ben Franklin High School.

“We need the same level of leadership to address the same problems in Baltimore.”

Sabila Williams and others protest the CSX coal facility in Curtis Bay.  (Shen Fen)

Sabila Williams, who recalled the dirty air she attended school in Curtis Bay, joined last week’s protest against the coal facility. (Shen Fen)

If the Baltimore City Council took such action, it would go against a pattern that Cornell University anthropology professor Chloe Ammann calls a “tragedy.”

She and others have documented the transformation of the area over the last century, from rows of row houses lined with aspen trees to a dreary landscape of petrochemical companies and other undesirable uses.

In addition to coal terminals and chemical plants, the peninsula currently houses municipal landfills, refineries, municipal sewer treatment plants, medical waste incinerators, and oil and gas storage tank farms.

The Wagners Point community before it was demolished. (YouTube)

Aman, who has been researching the region’s industrial history, said residents in the 1970s and 1980s, convinced that exposure to toxic chemicals would harm their health, focused their complaints on the frequent bombings on the peninsula.

The accident has plagued the area for even longer.

For example, in 1920 there was a devastating fire at the American Asphalt Refining Company when two oil drums exploded after being struck by lightning. Burning oil flooded streets, destroyed 32 homes and left 100 homeless in Wagner Point, baltimore sun reported at the time.

The 1984 tank explosion “created a Hiroshima-like mushroom cloud” – Chloe Ahmann.

During and after World War II, industrialization accelerated and explosions became more frequent, leading to a key tank explosion at the Essex Industrial Chemicals plant in Fairfield in 1984.

That explosion was said to have “formed a mushroom cloud like the Hiroshima atomic bomb,” according to Aman.

Security billboard for the Curtiss Bay Armory, a military installation in the area, circa 1950.  (U.S. National Archives, Philadelphia.)

Security billboard for the Curtiss Bay Armory, a military installation in the area, circa 1950. (U.S. National Archives, Philadelphia.)

Acquisition and Emigration

The Essex bombing gave residents leverage to secure some sort of victory, following three other high-profile industrial accidents.

“It’s difficult for a community to pursue slow, chronic health effects,” Aman said in an interview brewing“People realize they can’t get cities to care about their health. Instead, they emphasize their imminent demise when the next disaster strikes.”

Nicole King, a UMBC professor who also studies the history of the area, said the series of tragedies “further motivated residents to seek justice through relocation.”

She cited the death of a beloved community activist from cancer in 1998, followed by an explosion and a three-alarm fire at a Condi Vista chemical plant that injured three workers,

What residents ended up getting from their long battle with the city was a buyout of a small group of homeowners in the Wagner Point and Fairfield neighborhoods — whose homes the city threatened to expropriate.

“They get paid to move, but they don’t win any intervention from the city or state to control the industry around them,” Aman said.

Ahmann, a teacher at Curtis Bay Elementary School until 2012, saw how unhealthy air affected her first graders:

“The dust made it so difficult for some of them to breathe that they chose to stay indoors during recess.”

Homes on Hazel Street are intended to be refurbished and sold as affordable housing.  (JM Joe Delano)

Homes on Hazel Street in Curtis Bay will be refurbished and sold as affordable housing. (JM Giordano)

fight to stay

After the explosion at the coal-fired power plant last December, residents said they decided not to leave but to oppose the company.

“We will not allow this history of environmental injustice to repeat itself,” the Curtiss Bay Community Association (CCBA) said in a statement after two residents filed a class action lawsuit against CSX in October.

Their complaint not only seeks damages, but also requires the company to pay for environmental monitoring and regular diagnostic checks to ensure early detection of coal dust-related illnesses.

Organizers of last week’s march had similar demands for relief funds to mitigate the effects of the toxic industry.

Melanie Thomas. Director of Development, South Baltimore Community Land Trust.  (JM Giordano)

Meleny Thomas, Development Director, South Baltimore Community Land Trust. (JM Giordano)

They also hope to help transition to a more sustainable “green” economy with new community-owned composting operations and recycling, deconstruction and reuse facilities.

Greg Sawtell of the Community Land Trust believes these events are critical in preparing for the eventual closure of the BRESCO waste incinerator, whose contract was recently extended by Mayor Brandon Scott.

“If Mayor Scott is serious, these are the things he should be doing now” – Greg Sottle.

“If Mayor Scott was really serious when he said he would do everything in his power to avoid renewing BRESCO, these are the things he should be doing now,” Sauter said.

The Community Land Trust and CCBA have identified a 64-acre former landfill on the peninsula as a potential site for a Zero Waste Resource Recovery Park.

A former landfill in Curtis Bay, where some hope to develop composting operations and other resource recovery facilities.  (JM Giordano)

A former landfill in Curtis Bay, where some hope to develop composting operations and other resource recovery facilities. (JM Giordano)

Community leaders also pointed to new investments already underway, such as several affordable housing initiatives, including one at the site of a fire in the 1600 block of Hazel Street in 2017.

Another improvement is the city’s commitment to a $9 million overhaul of the aging Recreation Center in Curtis Bay, where last week’s parade began.

“These investments are happening not far from the CSX that just exploded! I mean, it’s over there. It’s a major problem!” said Meleny Thomas, director of development for the Community Land Trust.

“The city really has to fix this. These explosions and pollution can’t go on,” she continued. “We’re trying to build the community here. We need a little help.”

More about industries and organizations in South Baltimore:

Presentation by Chloe Ahmann, professor of anthropology at Cornell University, “The Time Bomb: 200 Years of Toxic Denial in Late Industrial South Baltimore,” Dec. 6, 4-5:30 pm. Via Zoom at

Presentation by Nicole Fabricant, professor of anthropology at Towson University and author of Fighting to Breathe: Race, Toxicity, and the Rise of Youth Activism in Baltimore.Watch the event just held at Red Emma’s [VIDEO HERE] Fabricant and Shashawnda Campbell of the South Baltimore Community Land Trust and former Morgan State University professor Lawrence Brown are the authors of Black Butterfly: The Toxic Politics of Race and Space in America.

The CSX coal bunker damaged by an explosion on Dec. 30, 2021 is seen outside this Curtiss Bay street.  (JM Giordano)

The CSX coal bunker is visible off Curtis Avenue. (JM Giordano)

A worker walks past a huge pile of coal at the CSX Transshipment Facility in Curtis Bay.  (JM Giordano)

A worker walks past a huge pile of coal at the CSX plant in Curtis Bay. (JM Giordano)

An explosion at the CSX coal-fired power plant sent smoke billowing over Curtiss Bay.  @BCFDL734

An explosion at a coal-fired power plant in December sent smoke billowing over Curtis Bay. (@BCFDL734)

An Arial view of the Curtis Bay CSX facility after the December 30, 2021 blast.  (YouTube)

An aerial view of the damaged CSX facility after the blast. (YouTube)

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