What does it mean for a community to chant, “No coal for Christmas”? On Dec. 30, 2021, an explosion in the Curtis Bay area of Baltimore shattered windows, depositing coal dust onto houses and spreading terror among residents. The explosion took place at a coal storage facility owned and operated by CSX Transportation Inc., the railroad company serving the East Coast, South and Midwest. The coal from this terminal in Curtis Bay is transported both domestically and internationally.
This explosion was not an isolated incident, but reflects more than 100 years of environmental injustice in South Baltimore. Residents say exposure to pollution and contamination has condemned them to lives of asthma, ulcers and cancers. Research has found that Curtis Bay residents have more than a decade-lower life expectancy than residents of more affluent Baltimore neighborhoods.
Residents say they’ve had enough.
So, marking a year after the explosion, marchers took to the streets Nov. 30 and Dec.17. It was Curtis Bay neighbors and other city residents, along with community activists and organizers from groups such as South Baltimore Community Land Trust, Curtis Bay Community Association, Re: Action, Extinction Rebellion and Green Party members. Also present were university students and professors from institutions including Maryland Institute College of Art, Towson University, the University of Maryland Baltimore County and Johns Hopkins University.
We marched down to the CSX coal pier premises to protest the environmental degradation unfolding from the transportation of coal.
On our way to and from the plant Nov. 30, residents shared their stories of the fears and anxieties that arose after the explosion and the health concerns they associated with the plant returning to full capacity. We walked in a line in freezing weather and drizzling rain. As bodies warmed, chants got louder. Slowly, we spread into the street, as if to occupy it with our bodies, a way to reclaim the right to the neighborhood. We pulled our friends away from oncoming cars, continuing to shout rhythmically, “No more coal. No more oil. Keep the carbon in the soil.”
As we listened to each other, we heard a mother explain to her young daughter what coal particles do to the lungs. “You see this gray sky? It is coal. The coal is changing the sky from blue to gray. And the air, it should not be that murky, too. We are here, fighting for our air.”
The Dec. 17 rally had a different theme. This time we were all dressed in Santa hats — “No coal for Christmas.” Our Christmas carols were all transformed into Christmas environmental carols. We caroled at the one-year mark of the CSX coal explosion, singing about what it means to live in its aftermath. The marchers were not calling to shut down CSX or take away job opportunities for residents, but for CSX to transport non-polluting materials.
One protester started describing the state of her windows today. She said, “Since the explosion, they’ve been covered with plastic trash bags. After all, it costs at least $200 to replace them. I’m only a lunch lady at a school. After my boy takes a shower, if you wipe his arm with a towel, you’ll find clear black residues. This is the environment we have to live in.”
Residents we spoke with emphasized that the movement against CSX is specifically against coal, not CSX workers. This sentiment was shared by other rally attendees, one of whom stressed that CSX “created some jobs, but the people aren’t going to have a quality life. Their life expectancy is going to be cut short because of how they’re trying to make a living.” It’s a system we all participate in. That needs to change, on the individual and structural level.
What brought us to Curtis Bay was a sustainable design practicum class meant to bridge the gap between academia and environmental activism, co-taught by Hopkins anthropologist Anand Pandian and SBCLT organizer Shashawnda Campbell. Unlike most JHU classes, this class takes students outside the confines of Hopkins into the heart of Baltimore. We’ve been working alongside community residents and activists to understand and fight processes of environmental degradation and environmental injustice in the city. We’ve learned that our focus must surpass momentary accomplishments.
As Campbell has taught us, “This isn’t a new story. We’ve seen this a hundred times before. How can we learn from this history so that it doesn’t repeat itself again?”
Seeing people come together for these rallies makes us think of the various ways that injustice connects us. It is a battle we all endure, one that we must come together to face. As one of the protestors from a nearby neighborhood said, “The environment connects us all. The water used by CSX to keep the coal pile damp drains into all of our water systems. We are all affected one way or the other.”
Tomisin Longe is a senior undergraduate studying anthropology and psychology at Johns Hopkins University.
Alaa Saad is a graduate anthropology student at Johns Hopkins.