For Ray Conaway, it started when he was a child. Spending time in Curtis Bay, he’d notice an acrid smell and ask his mother what it was.
“‘Something not good for us,’” he said his mother would reply.
Conaway believes the smell he remembers was almost certainly tied to the heavy industry there — including the coal terminal operated by CSX Transportation along the water.
Now 27, Conaway is one of the co-presidents of the community association in Curtis Bay, in South Baltimore. He lives about four blocks away from the CSX coal facility, where an explosion in December 2021 rattled houses, broke windows and sent a plume of coal dust into the air and neighborhood.
As an adult, Conaway knows there might be a cost to where he chooses to live.
“I’ll be a little personal with you … I’m fearful of it. I’m young. I want to live a long life,” he said. “I feel like making a commitment to live in Curtis Bay is going to shorten that, and I think that’s an injustice.”
Two Curtis Bay residents, Cheyenne Shongo and Kennett Walker, are pursuing a class-action lawsuit against CSX Transportation, seeking damages and accountability following the explosion.
Jonathan Nace, an attorney representing the two residents, called the explosion “significant” and that it caused actual injuries to the people who live In the proposed class area.
“The plaintiffs in the [proposed] class deserve some sort of compensation,” he said.
In addition to damages, the complaint — filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court — seeks the establishment of a medical monitoring fund, saying people in Curtis Bay were significantly exposed “to proven hazardous substances, including coal dust, lead, arsenic, silica and particulate matter,” and that the exposure creates a “significantly increased risk of contracting latent diseases,” including cancer.
The complaint seeks to include people who live in Curtis Bay near the coal terminal in the proposed class action suit. The proposed class area is bounded by Bay Avenue on to the west and Curtis Avenue to the east, the area near Aspen Street to the south and Patapsco Avenue to the north.
In a statement, Cindy Schild, a spokesperson for CSX, said the company is reviewing the allegations in the complaint.
“The Curtis Bay facility has been operating for over 140 years without an incident like this; fortunately last year’s event did not result in any injuries,” the statement said. “We have been working with federal and state environmental and safety officials since it occurred. CSX remains committed to the safety and health of our employees and our neighboring communities.”
Meanwhile, a Maryland Department of the Environment spokesperson said in an email the department had no comment on the complaint, and that a resolution to the government’s enforcement case against CSX for the explosion was ongoing.
‘Just disregard for human life’
Angie Shaneyfelt has lived in Curtis Bay for 15 years, and raised twin girls there for nine. She remembers seeing one of her girls cradled in the fetal position, scared, after the explosion in December. Shaneyfelt herself was recovering from COVID-19, and had lost her sense of smell.
After the loud explosion, though, Shaneyfelt said she could smell “this really bad rotten egg, sulfur smell,” even with some sense loss from her sickness and through the mask she was wearing. And neither of her girls were able to enjoy fireworks at a summer camp over the summer, Shaneyfelt said, because they were traumatized by the noise of the explosion.
Conaway was sick with COVID-19 when the explosion happened last December, too. He remembers the explosion shocking him, and said it got him out of bed.
“The windows rattled, and a few windows shook out of place. I thought a plane crashed, that was just the intensity of that explosion,” he said.
Take a walk in Curtis Bay and it’s not unusual to see evidence of coal dust. It accumulates on windows and on cars, and there’s the odor, too. On a normal day, Conaway says, it takes a day or two of leaving his car parked to see a noticeable layer of dust.
But when the explosion happened?
“With this explosion, it was immediate,” he said. “My car was covered in coal dust, and I’m four blocks away, and I still had a dusting of coal on my car — all of my neighbors did.”
Even on a regular day, Shaneyfelt said it can look like walking around and seeing the neighborhood covered in “a mild pollen count level, except it’s black, and it’s coal dust.”
“We breathe this in every single day. That’s not cool,” she said. “It’s just disregard for human life, really.”
Scope of the complaint
The complaint makes a set of claims about the explosion: that it began because of a buildup of methane gas and coal dust, and that the buildup was only possible because of improper ventilation; that the dispersed coal dust carried with it arsenic, lead, silica and particulate matter, and that residents in Curtis Bay breathed that material in as it spread over the neighborhood; and that homes were “blanketed” in the dust after the explosion.
In laying out the cause of action, the complaint alleges that CSX acted negligently, trespassed and caused a private nuisance through the explosion. It says the members of the potential class in the lawsuit require medical monitoring because of their exposure to “proven hazardous substances” and that as a proximate result of that exposure, the proposed class members are at “a significantly increased risk” of health conditions such as cancer, lead poisoning and coal workers’ pneumoconiosis.
In addition to the medical fund and “compensatory and consequential damages,” the complaint also seeks an injunction against CSX to require “adequate staffing and training of all staff.”
Phylicia Porter, the Baltimore City council member who represents Curtis Bay, said in a statement that she would continue to work with her colleagues to prioritize the health and safety needs of the community and all residents of Baltimore.
“I stand by my statement that negligence to this degree is not a mistake nor an oversight; it is a choice,” she said.
Although they’re not parties to the lawsuit, Conaway and Shaneyfelt both said they support the complaint. Both could potentially be included in the class action.
“For so long CSX has not been held accountable for anything that has happened at their hands when it comes to this community. This is I think a good step,” Shaneyfelt said.