CSX Transportation has been cited for nine serious violations by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in connection with the December 30 explosion at its coal terminal that shattered windows and frightened residents in the South Baltimore community of Curtis Bay.
OSHA’s June 29 letter to CSX does not explicitly make a determination about the cause of the blast, but it describes serious deficiencies that could have set the stage for the explosion that blew out the side of the silo at the Benhill Avenue coal transfer facility.
Equipment used in a hazardous location “was not approved for the ignitable or combustible properties of the specific gas, vapor, dust or fiber that was or could be present,” OSHA said in the letter, which was signed by area director Nadira Janack.
“Electrical equipment, including a control panel, overhead lighting, an outlet and transformer that was installed was not explosion proof,” the letter said.
The company did not properly test the atmosphere in hazardous locations prior to employees entering “to remove a blockage in the coal hatchway feeder,” Janack wrote.
Employees entering two “escape tunnels” to perform that work were not wearing “appropriate respirators,” according to OSHA, which also informed the company it faces a total $121,200 in fines.
“Electrical equipment, including a control panel, overhead lighting, an outlet and transformer was not explosion proof” – OSHA letter.
The findings were both validating and infuriating for neighborhood residents, who have been pressing the railroad to disclose the cause of the explosion and demanding the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) take action against the company.
“It’s a start, I guess, but it’s not a full report about what happened,” said Greg Sawtell, who co-chairs the Community of Curtis Bay Association.
“This just underscores what the neighbors have been saying for decades and now we have it in black-and-white,” Sawtell said. “It shows they are not treating this facility like the hazard it represents to both the workers and to the community.”
“I mean, here we have a multi-billion company that can’t be bothered to have the proper respirators and electrical panels,” he added.
CSX and MDE Respond
Today the Jacksonville, Fla.-based company issued a brief statement in response to the OSHA action.
“CSX is committed to ensuring the health and safety of our employees and neighboring communities,” wrote spokeswoman Cindy Schild, who told The Brew no employees were injured as a result of the explosion and that no one was taken to the hospital that day.
Schild declined to respond in specific terms to the alleged illegal workplace conditions.
“We have been in communication with OSHA regarding its June 29th letter and are scheduled to discuss the alleged violations with the agency in greater detail before CSX’s July 22, 2022 deadline to contest the citations,” Schild wrote.
Leni Fortson, a spokeswoman for OSHA, said the company actually has until July 26 to respond.
Asked what agency is responsible for confirming the cause of the explosion and potentially taking action, Fortson pointed to MDE.
An MDE spokesman, Jay Apperson, said the agency “has been awaiting the results of OSHA’s investigation and is now reviewing that agency’s findings and evaluating further regulatory steps, including a potential enforcement action.”
According to OSHA, CSX Transportation has a history of safety violations – and targeting those who report them.
An investigation by the agency found that the company violated the Federal Railroad Safety Act and demonstrated a pattern of retaliation after firing a worker in December 2019 for reporting safety concerns. OSHA ordered the company to pay $71,976 in back wages, interest, and damages, and $150,000 in punitive damages.
In October 2020, OSHA ordered CSX to reinstate an employee who reported an unsafe customer gate and an on-the-job injury and pay more than $95,000 in back wages and $75,000 in punitive damages. Similar whistleblower investigations resulted in reinstatements and payment of back wages and damages in the New York region in 2016 and 2010.
Porter: Not Satisfied
Residents, and their 10th District Council representative, Phylicia Porter, have been frustrated with the lack of response from the state to their longstanding concerns about harmful impact of the facility – concerns that boiled over in the wake of the December explosion.
“I am not satisfied with MDE’s response at all,” Porter said. “People have been complaining about this facility for years and yet the proper agencies are never engaged in monitoring them.”
At the coal terminal, located in Curtis Bay for more than a century, CSX stores domestic coal in a pile on the ground, then loads it onto ships for export or barges for use in area power plants. For years, the soot and smells emanating from the terminal’s activities have drawn complaints.
In the immediate aftermath of the explosion, residents reported overpowering odors – and more particulates and grit coating their cars and backyards than usual.
“People have been complaining about this facility for years and yet the proper agencies are never engaged in monitoring them” – Councilwoman Phylicia Porter.
Last month, residents spoke forcefully at a City Council hearing about the trauma of that day, the fears for their health and the disparate impact of that industrial site and others on low-income Black and brown communities in South Baltimore.
Invited to that hearing, CSX did not attend. Porter has now scheduled a second hearing on the issue for August 24 at 5 p.m. and hopes that the company will send a representative.
Porter and community leaders are hoping that the state will take action now that OSHA has weighed in on the explosion.
“It’s been almost seven months now and it’s time for MDE to finally impose some enforcement,” Sawtell said.
He said the agency told community leaders that unless OSHA indicated “an act of god” was to blame for the explosion, MDE would take action to impose sanctions on CSX.
To Sawtell, that means more than just issuing a fine. Any financial penalties should go to the community for remediation, he said, and other measures should be required “not just by MDE but in consultation with the community.”
In recent months, MDE has been assisting local community organizations, together with volunteers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the University of Maryland, to support deployment of a community air monitoring network.
But more could be done, according to Sawtell.
“Serious air monitors could be installed on site at the coal facility and the community given access to the results. There’s a lot that could be done if the state is really interested in environmental justice,” he explained.
“For instance, once and for all, MDE could finally address the issue of fugitive dust that the community has been talking about for all these years.”
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7/12/22 Statement on OHA report from Councilwoman Phylicia Porter:
“CSX found responsible for OSHA violations after December coal explosion in Curtis Bay
Across City and our Nation, our air and water are being polluted with impunity and with great consequences to our health and environment. South Baltimore communities, like Brooklyn and Curtis Bay, have borne the brunt of this pollution and are now on the front lines of climate change, often getting hit first and worst. Companies like CSX and other industrial facilities have a moral responsibility to prioritize the health of communities that are in direct contact of pollutants produced from their facilities.
Too often, our local and state governments have turned a blind eye to this public health emergency—more so in communities of color, and low-income communities. To help address these long-standing wrongs, municipal, state, and federal action must advance bold environmental justice legislation.
Currently, federal, state, and local governments often regulate pollution at the individual project level. As a result, permitting decisions under the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and many other laws do not sufficiently contemplate an area’s cumulative pollution levels, resulting in dangerous environmental and health impacts.
While the incurred fine against CSX is the first step, this is only the tip of the iceberg that even remotely addresses the urgent public health danger. This coal facility that is directly across from residents, a community center, and the Baltimore Harbor, is an eminent threat to public health. With the community’s support, my office has prioritized this issue since Day 1 of my tenure—and will continue to do so for the remainder of my tenure as Councilwoman for the Tenth District.
This incurred fine against CSX is an outcry of generations-long racism, environmental injustice, and lack of government intervention on this very serious public health issue. I intend to work with the community to spearhead more enforceable action prompting Mayor Scott, our state and federal partners, and industry to ensure that we not only produce rhetoric but continuous enforceable action toward this issue.”