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Are toxin standards too lax at CSX coal facility?

Environmental groups say draft pollution permits for CSX Transportation Inc.’s coal export facility in South Baltimore do not adequately protect Baltimore’s harbor.

“Their draft standards basically do not set limits on toxic metals that can leak from these coal piles,” said Lauren Randall, a spokeswoman for the Sierra Club. “It’s a big deal.”

The updated regulations, drafted by the Maryland Department of the Environment, are open to public comment through July 5. Jay Apperson, a spokesman for MDE, said a final determination on CSX’s permit would not be made until after all public comments were reviewed, including those given during a public hearing scheduled for Tuesday evening.

CSX has operated the coal facility in Curtis Bay for more than 90 years. In that time, the Port of Baltimore has become the second-biggest exporter of coal among United States seaports.

Environmental groups including the Sierra Club and Chesapeake Climate Action Network say state environmental regulations have failed to keep up with that rate of growth.

“Allowing unlimited toxic water pollution from the coal export facility to spill into Baltimore Harbor jeopardizes our historic seaport and is a known threat to public health,” said David O’Leary, chairman of the Sierra Club’s Maryland chapter. “The Maryland Department of the Environment should listen to Marylanders and set aggressive safeguards against toxic metals known to leach from coal piles.”

CSX spokesman Robert T. Sullivan said in a statement that CSX was “cooperating fully” in the permit review process and that the company prided itself on working with the Curtis Bay community.

“CSX continues to invest steadily in the Curtis Bay facility, and it employs leading environmental management technologies to protect employees and the community,” the statement said. “As part of that effort, CSX has installed a state-of-the-art stormwater retention system which allows the facility to utilize recycled water for coal dust suppression and reduces water discharge.”

When coal arrives by train at the CSX facility, it is unloaded onto conveyers that then transport the coal to one of two piers for export. Stormwater runoff from coal in storage areas is contained by a berm, according to a report filed by MDE after the most recent inspection of the facility.

However, if water treatment ponds overflow after heavy rain — which happens every few months, the report said — heavy metals could be swept away in stormwater. The draft permit places limits on copper, nickel and zinc but not other metals that the Sierra Club says are contained in coal runoff and have been linked to cancer, birth defects and neurological damage.

A Sierra Club statement said last week’s CSX train crash and the CSX coal train derailment in Ellicott City last year raised questions about the company’s ability to protect the community from toxins. In a statement, CSX defended its record.

“CSX has operated the Curtis Bay facility for more than 90 years and has demonstrated a strong commitment to protecting the environment and working with the local community,” the statement said.