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Curtis Bay residents file $5M lawsuit, propose class action over CSX coal facility explosion

Damage from the explosion is seen on the coal transfer tower of the CSX Curtis Bay Coal Terminal, Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021, in Baltimore. Two residents are suing CSX over the explosion, citing health concerns about the coal dust from the blast. (Jerry Jackson/The Baltimore Sun via AP)

Two Curtis Bay residents have filed a proposed class-action lawsuit against CSX over a massive explosion at the company’s coal terminal last year, citing health concerns related to the coal dust that blanketed the South Baltimore neighborhood after the blast.

The lawsuit seeks to hold CSX accountable for the explosion, which shook Baltimore on Dec. 30 but left no one injured.

The complaint, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, proposes a class of plaintiffs who live near the Curtis Bay coal piers facility on Benhill Avenue. The area includes a section of the city that stretches for about a mile along Curtis Avenue and is bounded by West Bay Avenue.

“Plaintiffs and the proposed class members were caused to inhale these substances that migrated from Defendant’s Curtis Bay Facility onto their properties,” the complaint claims. “Plaintiffs further resided in their homes where these substances, and others, settled and required and continue to require cleanup before these residences can be made safe.”

A judge would have to approve the group before the lawsuit could proceed as a class action.

The complaint also seeks $5 million in damages and asks a judge to set up a medical monitoring fund for the members of the class.

“Defendant’s operation, maintenance, and staffing of the Curtis Bay Facility has caused, and continues to cause, the release of poisonous and carcinogenic chemicals onto Plaintiffs’ and the class members’ properties through air particles,” the complaint claims.

CSX officials blamed the explosion on a buildup of methane inside a tunnel at the facility. The tunnel, which is 770 feet long and used to transport coal along a conveyer belt, was inadequately ventilated, officials said.

The attorney for the plaintiffs, Jonathan Nace, said Curtis Bay residents brought the suit because they had been “subjected to dangerous toxins as a result of CSX’s failures.”

His firm, Nidel & Nace PLLC, specializes in “complex legal and scientific issues surrounding environmental and toxic injury litigation,” according to its website.

“CSX operates a large coal facility in a residential neighborhood but failed to act in a way to prevent their residential neighbors from being unreasonably subjected to harm from their facility,” Nace said. “The Plaintiffs will hold them accountable to all the residents of Curtis Bay for their failures and seek necessary means of remediation, mitigation and medical monitoring.”

Baltimore City Council has held two hearings about the explosion, though CSX did not send a representative to the first hearing.

Councilwoman Phylicia Porter, who represents the neighborhood, has said previously that she would seek to suspend operations at the coal terminal. On Wednesday, Porter said she will continue to work with city and industry leaders to prioritize the community’s needs.

“I stand by my statement that negligence to this degree is not a mistake or an oversight; it is a choice,” Porter said in a statement.

CSX faces possible penalties from the Maryland Department of the Environment and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. OSHA cited CSX with serious safety violations that could carry more than $120,000 in fines, and MDE sent the company a violation notice in July.

The state environmental violations could also carry fines, but MDE offered CSX a chance to settle the claims in August. An MDE spokesperson said in an email that settlement discussions with the company are ongoing. OSHA did not immediately return calls requesting comment.

CSX spokesperson Cindy Schild said in a statement that CSX is reviewing the lawsuit. 

“The Curtis Bay facility has been operating for over 140 years without an incident like this; fortunately last year’s event did not result in any injuries,” Schild said. “We have been working with federal and state environmental and safety officials since it occurred. CSX remains committed to the safety and health of our employees and our neighboring communities.”

Greg Sawtell, a co-president of the Community of Curtis Bay Association, said the organization fully supports residents’ efforts to take legal action against CSX. He said the neighborhood has dealt with coal dust from the facility for years, and the December explosion was just the latest sign that the terminal poses a risk to the surrounding community.

It’s a breaking point,” Sawtell said. “If you don’t step up and respond when a facility of that size literally blows up in your backyard and threatens your life, I don’t think we can say we have a community, and the concern is we won’t have a community if we don’t take a stand right now.”