CSX encouraged to work out a settlement in Curtis Bay coal facility explosion

Published on: August 16, 2022 6:05 PM EDT|Updated on: August 16, 2022 7:34 PM EDT

The CSX coal facility in Curtis Bay on August 11, 2022.

The Maryland Department of the Environment is giving CSX Transportation the chance to work out a settlement with the state for its role in a December explosion at the coal terminal it operates in Curtis Bay.

A letter from the Maryland Office of the Attorney General, sent on behalf of the Maryland Department of the Environment, cited CSX for violating Maryland’s ambient air quality control law and gives the company an opportunity to settle the matter rather than fight it out through litigation. The civil penalties that CSX face from the MDE can be as high as $25,000 per day per violation.

Specifically, the settlement letter says the explosion caused the emission of numerous unpermitted pollutants: the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide; the poisonous gas carbon monoxide; as well as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which can harm the respiratory system and contribute to acid rain. Also released were volatile organic compounds, or VOC, which can be harmful and irritating in high concentrations. The letter said the emissions caused “a nuisance or air pollution” and happened because CSX failed to take “reasonable precautions to prevent particulate matter from becoming airborne.”

The letter, sent on July 27, said the environment department determined the Dec. 30, 2021 explosion “was caused by, or resulted in the violation of several regulations and Operating Permit conditions,” which the department had sent a violation notice about a week earlier.

A spokesperson for the MDE said the agency and CSX are in “discussions” following the July 27 settlement letter. The attorney general’s office said it would not be able to comment on agency referrals or confirm the existence of an ongoing investigation.

In a statement, CSX spokesperson Cindy Schild said the company has “increased onsite monitoring and improved ventilation in the tunnels while continuing to work with industry experts and regulatory agencies to ensure employee and public safety.”

“We have been in discussions with both OSHA and MDE regarding their letters issued to CSX in June and July, respectively,” she wrote.

MDE Secretary Horacio Tablada said in a statement in July the department “will continue to work with CSX and the community to see that conditions in these neighborhoods are closely monitored and evaluated as part of our work to protect and improve environmental conditions there.”

The explosion scared Curtis Bay residents and damaged property in the neighborhood. Nobody was injured or killed in the blast at one of the terminal’s coal transfer towers.

Ray Conaway, co-president of the Curtis Bay community association, said the explosion rocked his house “to its core” and that he initially thought there had been some sort of plane crash. Conaway, who was recovering from COVID-19, was resting at the time of the explosion.

“I got out of my bed in a panic, ran to my front door, hoping that I wouldn’t see smoke,” he said. “But I did.”

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration also cited CSX for a combination of “serious violations” at the facility, and ordered the company to pay a $121,200 penalty.

In an email, an OSHA spokesperson confirmed that CSX contested the citations and that the company is in negotiations with the agency. According to an OSHA handbook, the timeline to pay penalties and abate unsafe conditions is suspended until a final order or decision is issued.

A Baltimore City Council Public Safety and Government Operations hearing about the explosion and its aftermath is scheduled for Aug. 24 at 5 p.m. Though they were invited, CSX did not send a representative to an earlier city council hearing about the explosion.

Conaway said the community is growing frustrated by the entire situation.

“CSX has had no communication with us,” he said.

Meleny Thomas, who lives in Curtis Bay and works for the South Baltimore Community Land Trust, said the biggest thing she hopes from the upcoming council hearing is that someone from CSX “actually appears.”

“They were absent at the first hearing, which sent clear signals to us as community residents that there’s no sense of accountability to even letting residents know what’s happening,” she said.

Thomas and Conaway were both disappointed by news of the settlement opportunity.

Thomas said it was hard to gauge exactly what her reaction is, because there is not an actual settlement yet to evaluate. But, she said, “it would be hard to say, ‘yes, settlement would be enough.’”

Conaway said he thought settlement outside of court would not be real accountability.

“I think this is not a good solution. I’m not encouraged to hear that,” he said.

Conaway said real accountability would include some sort of restitution from CSX to members of the Curtis Bay community who have been affected by the explosion. And, at the very least, he said, it would include CSX communicating with residents and showing up at the city hearing.

cody.boteler@thebaltimorebanner.com

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