Curtis Bay residents have said for decades that that the gray film that builds up on their homes, fence posts and vehicles wafts there from the large coal train terminal at the bottom of the hill in their neighborhood. Though this observation is common knowledge in the community, Maryland’s top environmental officials have sought more evidence on the South Baltimore dust before taking key regulatory steps.

But a new community-led report, completed in partnership between regulators at the Maryland Department of the Environment, local universities and neighborhood groups, confirms what advocates and residents have said all along: That dark stuff is coal.

Over three rounds of tests between August and October of this year, researchers found coal dust in 100% of samples taken across eight different sites in the neighborhood, which ranged from being adjacent to the CSX coal terminal to as far as three-quarters of a mile away.

Dozens of people packed into the Curtis Bay recreation center, across the street from the CSX facility, Thursday night to hear citizen scientists, university partners and Maryland Department of the Environment officials present the findings of the new report. A large banner declaring “No coal in Curtis Bay” hung at the front of the room, and the mood at times turned tense as residents pressed on the state to revoke CSX’s permit now that they have hard evidence of coal dust throughout the neighborhood.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The findings come at a consequential moment for CSX and its relations with the surrounding community. Two years ago, an explosion caused by an accumulation of methane at the coal piers blew out windows in Curtis Bay and sent shockwaves through the neighborhood. And state environmental regulators are currently considering a new operating permit for CSX — the first since the late 2021 explosion. The environmental department delayed its decision on that permit so they could take community input and the study’s findings into account. Officials expect to release a draft version in February.

In a statement ahead of Thursday’s meeting, the Maryland Department of the Environment called the new study “the most advanced community-led air quality monitoring project ever undertaken in Maryland.”

“We will let the science and data identified in this study lead the way as we consider a new permit for the Curtis Bay coal terminal through the lens of environmental justice,” Secretary of the Environment Serena McIlwain said in the statement.

Serena Coleman McIlwain, left, is framed alongside a line of people out of focus that lead up to her.
Maryland Secretary of the Environment Serena Coleman McIlwain listens to David Jones, second from right, express his concerns during a Curtis Bay community meeting on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

To quantify the coal pollution in the neighborhood, researchers placed test strips at locations around the neighborhood, including at homes, a park, a church and a school, collecting particulates and then examining the contents under a microscope. Low-cost sensors deployed around the neighborhood also measured the frequency and intensity of coal accumulation in the air.

Among the determinations of the collaborative report, researchers found that the spread of coal dust from the CSX site over the community happens on a day-to-day basis, rather than intermittently under certain conditions. A greater accumulation of coal dust was found near the terminal, but small particles that are particularly hazardous to health were found across testing sites in the neighborhood. Sensors detected coal dust drifting over the CSX fence line close to once every 1 1/2 hours, while incidents of high intensity coal dust proliferation spanned an average of six minutes, with the longest lasting for 137 minutes.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

By backing the findings about the proliferation of coal dust in Curtis Bay, the Maryland Department of the Environment could face heightened pressure to take stronger regulatory or enforcement actions against CSX.

Greg Sawtell, an environmental justice coordinator for the South Baltimore Community Land Trust, said the report “finally closes the door on decades of officials and CSX telling residents that their observations in their own community are wrong.”

After repeatedly hearing “shut up,” “step back,” “take one for the team,” or just, “you’re wrong,” Sawtell said the community now has evidence to back up what they already knew. While a transition to cleaner fuel sources won’t happen overnight, Sawtell called on officials to take immediate steps in response to the findings to phase out coal.

In a statement, CSX spokeswoman Sheriee Bowman said the company has made numerous investments in recent years to improve operations and dust control at its Curtis Bay facility, pointing to a fence line monitoring system of its own used for tracking air quality.

“We are listening and take concerns raised by the community in which we operate seriously,” Bowman said. “Our commitment to environmental responsibility and community well-being in Curtis Bay is unwavering.”

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

CSX has operated for more than a century in Curtis Bay, a South Baltimore neighborhood wedged between the Patapsco River and the industrial parks covering neighboring Fairfield, Wagner’s Point and Hawkins Point. The area’s history of industrial sprawl and displacement remains a source of persistent anxiety for many longtime residents in Curtis Bay.

Community members quoted in the new report point to cases of asthma in children in the neighborhood. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, meanwhile, says there’s no safe level of fine particle pollution, which research has linked to health complications like respiratory disease, heart disease, low birthweight and premature death.

“This is our lives,” David Jones, a Curtis Bay resident of 35-years, said Thursday. “When they cut me open in 20, 30, 40 years, am I gonna have the same lungs as a person that worked in a coal mine their whole lives? I’m gonna guarantee it’s yes.”

A large share of the country’s coal exports pass through the Port of Baltimore — 29% of total U.S. coal exports in the first quarter of 2023, according to the new report. Shipped in primarily from Appalachian mines, coal arrives at the CSX terminal in Curtis Bay in open-air train cars, where it often sits before being loaded onto barges and shipped overseas. More than 8.5 million tons of coal passed through the CSX terminal in 2021, and more than 7 million tons came through the year after, according to the report.

While Bowman, the CSX spokesperson, said the freight company has taken steps to improve its Curtis Bay operation, she also noted that many other industrial facilities operate in the area, too.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

A year ago, CSX entered into a settlement over the late 2021 explosion, agreeing to pay $15,000 to the state and $100,000 to the community land trust, for the construction of environmental education center in the neighborhood. The company also agreed to make facility improvements to guard against health and safety risks. Federal regulators with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration also fined CSX more than $120,000 last year for numerous violations associated with the explosion.

In addition to achieving net-zero emissions by 2045 — a process that would likely require phasing out fossil fuels like coal-power — environmental officials in Gov. Wes Moore’s administration have emphasized the importance of remediating health and environmental consequences of heavy industry for frontline communities like Curtis Bay. Environmental leaders have even acknowledged in recent months that the the dust afflicting the South Baltimore neighborhood is indeed coal.

“We know it’s coal dust. You can’t deny that,” McIlwain said this April at a community meeting in Curtis Bay, committing to getting the agency beyond “rhetoric” to address environmental justice issues in South Baltimore. “You have to be blind not to see what’s going on in this community.”

While McIlwain wasn’t in attendance Thursday night, Chris Hoagland, director of the air and radiation division of the environmental department, told attendees that the agency’s goal is to come up with the strongest permit possible under Maryland law to cut pollution levels from the CSX facility.

The findings released Thursday are the product of a unique collaboration that formed in the wake of the CSX explosion. Led by community members, students and citizen scientists, the research was conducted in partnership with the Maryland Department of the Environment’s Air and Radiation Administration, researchers at the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and neighborhood groups like the Curtis Bay association and South Baltimore Community Land Trust.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

How these new findings will inform the state’s oversight of CSX, though, remains unclear. Environmental officials say the findings of the new study will play a key role in the company’s new operating permit.

Under current regulations, Maryland requires companies to take “reasonable precautions” to prevent air pollutants from escaping open-air sources like CSX’s rail cars. According to the report, a surfactant is used at the mine to prevent coal dust from blowing off rail cars, while CSX sprays water on its coal piles in Curtis Bay to minimize dust escaping into the air.

Many residents in attendance pushed Hoagland and Department of the Environment to take more aggressive steps to shutter CSX and phase out coal altogether. Moore’s administration has previously denied a request by environmental activists to declare an air pollution state of emergency in Curtis Bay, and some advocates expressed frustration Thursday night that the environmental department would need a formal study to respond to the coal dust in the first place.

“What else is it gonna take for you guys to shut this down?” asked Angela Smothers, a resident of the nearby Mount Winans neighborhood, drawing applause from the crowd. “I don’t know what else you’re looking for.”

Neighborhood resident Tiffany Thompson recounted that she had once vowed never to live in Curtis Bay. Close to 20 years ago she was a teacher there and got to know students who had developed asthma as young children, a trend she attributed to the heavy industrial presence surrounding them. Curtis Bay residents have suffered from industrial pollution for decades, she said.

“We need to see this research turned into concrete results,” she said. “So our lives can be better. So we can open windows and breathe, not just fumes but fresh air.”

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Angela Smothers’ first name.

Adam Willis covers city government for The Banner, including the impacts of the large COVID-19 stimulus package that Baltimore received from the federal government. 

More From The Banner