The Fireball in Baltimore That Ignited a Climate Justice Movement

Residents of Curtis Bay Set Out to Save Their Neighborhood. Instead, They Built a Coalition With Global Aspirations

In December 2021, a fireball exploded in a tunnel at Baltimore’s CSX coal terminal. When state officials let the company return to business as usual, residents organized. Above, protesters gather at the gate of the CSX coal facility. Courtesy of authors.

On December 30, 2021, residents of Curtis Bay, a neighborhood in southern Baltimore, felt a loud boom. The foundation of the row homes and two-story buildings shook as though there had been an earthquake. Instead, a fireball had exploded, engulfing the south service entrance of a tunnel at the CSX coal pier. Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) issued a cease-and-desist to CSX, a multi-billion-dollar rail corporation, due to poor air quality and the damage to the structure. But once MDE agreed that the air quality levels were acceptable, the agency deemed the incident under control, and allowed CSX to continue with business as usual.

The primary cause of the explosion in Curtis Bay was methane gas buildup and coal dust in the coal silo towers. CSX claimed it was an isolated incident. But the massive explosion illustrates the ways that existing state environmental regulatory apparatuses fail to adequately protect community residents from polluting industries, whether out of a lack of political will or of resources to regulate.

In response, Baltimoreans have taken matters into our own hands. Bringing together a coalition of residents and environmental/climate justice movements, we have built a direct action and long-term campaign that highlights the importance of solidarity across Baltimore communities and state lines, and that connects all nodes of the commodity chain. This on-the-ground work can serve as a model for other communities in the worldwide fight to breathe clean air and drink unpolluted water.

The neighborhood of Curtis Bay has long been Baltimore’s “sacrifice zone”—an area whose residents, largely communities of color and poor whites, bear the brunt of the pollution and adverse health effects that stem from industrial development. In the late 1800s, the neighborhood stored guano harvested from nearby islands to fertilize Maryland’s tobacco-farming lands. This evolved into chemical and fertilizer companies, and today we see non-renewable fossil fuel storage and export, the nation’s largest medical waste incinerator, the city’s landfill, and more than 15 other polluting industries. The open-air coal pier is just one more hazard among many. The neighborhood has the highest respiratory illnesses from toxic stationary emissions in the entire U.S.; at this year’s Earth Day celebration in Curtis Bay, one resident noted: “We have seen people spitting up black dust. We wash cars and a quarter inch of dust layers our cars … I pulled 400 pounds of coal dust out of my gutter.”

After the CSX explosion, Curtis Bay residents held two city council hearings to ask for governmental enforcement of environmental and human health regulations. At the first, the representatives from CSX failed to show up. At the second, residents were only given two minutes to speak. The representatives from CSX were given far more time to assure residents that they had increased the tunnel’s airflow, and that no more explosions would take place.

In an era of austerity, in which environmental protection agencies have been gutted, residents and citizen scientists are having to do the work of government agencies.

After the meetings, the city council made the decision not to require MDE to impose additional regulations on CSX. This wasn’t surprising, given that the agency was in the process of being defunded by then-governor Larry Hogan to the point where it was incapable of regulating industries and protecting residents from hazards. Beyond just CSX, Maryland residents are seeing an uptick in hazardous chemical leaks and explosions. This May, between 50 and 75 gallons of nitric acid spilled from a vacuum truck owned by W.R. Grace Chemical; despite complaints from residents about foul odors, coal dust, and other toxins, MDE has failed to investigate the incident.

Given this inaction from both MDE and city government, residents of Baltimore have had to take matters into our own hands.

First, we studied other cases. In Richmond, California, city council members held federal railways accountable and moved towards covering coal dust on trains and protecting communities. In November of 2021, the City of Richmond reached a historic agreement with the Levin-Richmond Terminal Corporation to phase out storage of coal and petcoke, a byproduct of oil refining that burns similarly to coal but with even higher carbon emissions, by the end of 2026.

Next, we held two protests at the Curtis Bay CSX Coal Pier to galvanize city-wide support for a broader campaign against the transport and storage of coal in Baltimore. At the second protest, borrowing tactics from the U.K.-headquartered movement Extinction Rebellion, we sang Christmas carols that focused on the fossil fuel industry’s role in exacerbating the climate crisis, and hung a banner on the gate to the coal facility that read “No Coal for Christmas.”

Curtis Bay residents are also filing a class action lawsuit against CSX, seeking damages and accountability following the explosion. The complaint also seeks to create a medical monitoring fund, because residents’ exposure to coal dust, lead, arsenic, silica, and particulate matter creates an increased risk of developing latent illnesses, including cancer.

Finally, the Curtis Bay Community Association and the South Baltimore Community Land Trust (SBCLT) have been working with a team of scientists to collect real-time air pollution and meteorological data from residential and industrial areas of Curtis Bay, and are using trail cameras to capture activities at the CSX Coal Terminal. Their monitors and data have been used to get MDE to do their job: Many of the scientists have been in direct contact with representatives from MDE to illustrate “unsafe” plumes in the air or elevated levels of PM 2.5 and PM 10, and have been encouraging them to declare an air quality emergency. But even with the data, action and regulation have been an uphill battle.

In an era of austerity, in which environmental protection agencies have been gutted, residents and citizen scientists are having to do the work of government agencies. But global supply chains are far bigger than the jurisdiction of a given regulatory apparatus. While these actions within Baltimore are important, it is also essential to build long-term, solidaristic connections with other impacted communities along the CSX coal line and supply chain—to make a movement that links labor exploitation of coal workers and train conductors to residents living in sacrifice zones. Those of us from affected areas must penetrate regional, state, and even international bounds in our resistance. In the upcoming months, we will follow our political commitments along the rail lines, traveling to Appalachia to better understand labor conditions within CSX and in other communities impacted by coal dust. Eventually, we hope to bring about a massive work stoppage or regional strike, and then incorporate the labor struggles of places where our coal travels, like Japan and Brazil.

By building a climate and environmental justice movement at the intersection of extraction zones, labor, and impacted communities, we hope to build worker and community power and capacity to move toward a more sustainable future.

Nicole Fabricant is an anthropology professor at Towson University and co-founding member of the South Baltimore Community Land Trust.

Shashawnda Campbell is a community leader and environmental justice activist. As a student at Ben Franklin High School in South Baltimore, Campbell co-founded “Free Your Voice” and the South Baltimore Community Land Trust.

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PRIMARY EDITOR: Caroline Tracey | SECONDARY EDITOR: Talib Jabbar


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