How Big Business Made a Sacrifice Zone out of South Baltimore

Longtime Baltimore residents on the fight for environmental justice and what it feels like to be “sacrificed” by industry.

Maximillian Alvarez

Downtown South Baltimore. Wikimedia Commons

Read the full transcript below.

South Baltimore is a sacrifice zone,” Michael Middleton and Dr. Sacoby Wilson wrote in a guest commentary published in Maryland Matters this February. The six communities that make up South Baltimore — Cherry Hill, Westport, Mt. Winans, Lakeland, Brooklyn, and Curtis Bay — rank in the top 3% of the state for environmental burden using a Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) screening tool. Curtis Bay, the highest in the state, is Maryland’s poster child for environmental injustice. Industrial areas near Curtis Bay house oil tanks, a wastewater treatment plant, chemical plants, landfills, the country’s largest medical waste incinerator, and more. Heavy diesel trucks frequent residential streets. The Wagner’s Point and Fairfield communities that were once Curtis Bay’s neighbors to the east are gone. Those residents accepted buyouts to leave between the 1980s and 2011 after a series of chemical spills and accidents.” In this episode, we continue our Sacrificed” series by focusing on communities in South Baltimore and a story that quite literally hits close to home, less than half an hour from where Max lives. We speak with a panel of residents of South Baltimore about how they have seen their communities change over the years, what it feels like to be sacrificed” by industry and their government, how they and their neighbors are fighting for change, fighting for justice, and what others in Baltimore and beyond can do to help. Panelists include: David Jones, who has lived in Curtis Bay for over 35 years; Angela Smothers, a lifelong resident of Mt. Winans; Carlos Sanchez, a youth leader born and raised in Lakeland; and Tiffany Thompson, who was born and raised in Cherry Hill and has lived in Curtis Bay for the past three years.


This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

David Jones: So, my name is David Jones. I’ve lived in the community of Curtis Bay for over 35 years. Grew up here as a child, and went to the elementary school and the middle school. Moved away, and then moved back as, I guess, a young teenager. Got my first apartment in Curtis Bay at 15 years old. Was on my own with me and my wife. And, been pretty much living here ever since. Moved away again, and then bought my grandfather’s house. And then, I should say, since then, we’ve been living here ever since. Me and my wife’s been here now, in this house, for 26 years, 27 years.

Growing up here as a kid, it was a great place, very community-oriented. Everyone looked out for everyone. Everyone really cared about the dynamics and the way the community was. The industries, as a kid, we really didn’t look at them as an issue, because as a child you don’t see those as problems. You look at them almost as they’re part of your landscape, and it was a playground for us. We played on the train tracks, we played down by the water at some of these industries, at their peers like CSX. We went down to the coal piers and fished, and stuff like that when we were kids. And, it was a good place to be growing up. But then, as you get older, and you start to learn the dynamics that are actually going on in this community and the effects of what these industries are doing to people, and even as a kid, I knew certain things, but it doesn’t really register because you don’t really think about it as much when you’re a kid.

I had friends that were taken away in the middle of the night and lived in Wagner’s Point in Fairfield because their houses were bought out by industry because of eminent domain and because industry was more important than these neighborhoods that were a big part of these industries even being here. It’s just hard. I mean, I had an uncle that lived here for 30, 40 years and fought against industry, and finally threw his hands up, and had enough and left, just like a lot of other people. And it gets like that. I mean, you definitely feel like it’s not a winning fight sometimes. But, I’ve met a lot of great people, a lot of people that have just as much passion as I do, if not more. And, we’re not going to give up. We’re not going to stop this fight.

And, even if I decide to move away, I will fight just as hard as if I live here because this place will always be my roots, where I started and where I was born. And, seeing 40 years later, I’ll be 44 this year, 40 years later, that these things are still happening and it’s been generational, it’s disheartening. It really is.

Tiffany Thompson: My name is Tiffany. I’ve been a Curtis Bay resident for the past three years. I was born and raised in Cherry Hill. Back in the early-2000s, I worked as a teacher in the Headstart program at Curtis Bay Elementary, where I taught children who were three years of age, three to four years of age who had severe health problems, mainly asthma, who lived in Curtis Bay. And because of that reason and the air quality that I experienced as a teacher, I back then vowed that I would never live in Curtis Bay. But circumstances brought us here. I ain’t going to say the circumstances. But God brought us here for a reason. I like the community. I love the community collaborations. It’s a lot of great things in Curtis Bay, a lot of great people in Curtis Bay.

For my oldest child, it’s home now. And I say that because my grandmother who’s elderly, I’ll be moving her with me soon, and she refuses to live in Curtis Bay. She feels like she made it to 91, and she’s not going to let this environment take her out, which is sad and unfortunate, because like I said, for me, I live on a nice street and I like my neighbors. I like where I live, but because of the health conditions that we’re fighting to erase, and eradicate, she’s not willing to live here. But again, I feel good about my community, because we come together, and we’re supportive of each other, and we are continuing to battle the hazardous health conditions that we face that many people like Dave and Angie have faced over 30 years.

Carlos Sanchez: Hi, my name is Carlos Sanchez. I am a youth leader in the community of Lakeland, which is a neighboring community in Curtis Bay. Although I was born and raised in Lakeland, I do a lot of organizing in Curtis Bay, and then communities in South Baltimore. And, seeing what people have to deal with, not just in Curtis Bay, but in South Baltimore and home, and all of Mount Winans, Lakeland, Westport, all South Baltimore communities, there’s something that has to be changed, and it’s up to us to work together to accomplish that.

Angela Smothers: My name is Angela Smothers. I’m from Mount Linens, a small community in Baltimore. I’ve lived here all my life, which is a lot of years, over 50. And, as a child piggybacking off of Carlos, Angie, Dave, and who else? Did I miss anyone? The crew. We’re faced with most of all the same issues. This community is not just surrounded by one railroad tracks. We are actually surrounded by two. So, one end of the community is one set of railroad tracks, and the other end of the community is another railway. So, as a child, you hear the talk, you hear the complaints, but you’re too young to really understand. But, growing up in the community, raising kids in the community, when it’s affecting you, and you are mature enough to understand what my parents and my neighbors were fighting for, now, I mean, it’s real and been ongoing way too long, way, way too long.

Yeah, I really think… Well, I know a lot of people in the community has passed from cancer, which we believe is from the debris of the coal trains passing on both railroad tracks untarped. It’s just about time that they really take into consideration, they have to prioritize human life over profit. And, you know what I mean? It’s not an unreasonable request that many people, such as myself, not just in this state, but many states, that these issues are ongoing and it’s really overdue. It’s really overdue. Our quality and time span of our lives are definitely being shortened by the inconsideration of these railways that really don’t take our lives into consideration. I’m sorry, I’m going to hurry up. As a child, this is not a wealthy community. I had five sisters and three brothers, so it wasn’t as simple as just picking up, going, leaving, because it’s a nice community overall. My parents even loved it, but the community at large just wanted some safety measures put on the transporting of the coal and all the other hazardous material that was transported. And, way back then, it’s still occurring today.

“The Department of Defense and the military are pound for pound one of the biggest environmental polluters, if not the biggest polluters in the country, along with these other private industries.”

Maximillian Alvarez: All right, welcome everyone to another episode of Working People, a podcast about the lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles of the working class today, brought to you in partnership with In These Times Magazine and The Real News Network, produced by Jules Taylor, and made possible by the support of listeners like you. Working People is a proud member of the Labor Radio Podcast network. If you’re hungry for more worker and labor-focused shows like ours, follow the link in the show notes and go check out all the other great shows in our network. And please support the work that we’re doing here at Working People because we cannot keep going without y’all.

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My name is Maximilian Alvarez and we’ve got another doozy of an episode for y’all today. And I’m sure you guys have started to notice a bit of a theme in our episodes this year. From all of the interviews and organizing that we’ve been doing with residents living in and around East Palestine, Ohio, where as we know in Norfolk Southern Train derailment last year upended their lives and exposed those residents and their families to toxins that continue to do irreparable damage to their bodies, their environment, and their community, to the last interview that we published with Vina Cauley, who has herself been fighting for 40 years to expose all the ways the Portsmouth gaseous diffusion plant in Pike County, Ohio has been poisoning workers and residents. And that plant was built during the Cold War, all the way back in 1952, to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Atomic Energy Program. So that fight’s been going on for a long time too.

And, I have admittedly become a bit obsessed with the fact that so many of our fellow workers across the country are basically living in what we have chillingly come to call sacrifice zones. Normally, the term sacrifice zone is used to describe a place where people live that is being polluted by private industry or by government operations, because let’s not forget, the Department of Defense and the military are pound for pound one of the biggest environmental polluters, if not the biggest polluters in the country, along with these other private industries.

But the more that I look into this, the more obvious it becomes that the whole swaths of the country, including in our major cities, are basically right now in the process of being sacrificed, especially when you count communities that are already feeling the devastating impacts of climate change. And, they’re basically being left to fend for themselves, because from the forever chemicals and microplastics that are literally inside all of us right now to the poisonous coal ash, tailings pools, and factory farm manure lakes that are sitting next to homes across the country. From the generations and homelands that are at mortal risk of ever more massive wildfires and ever more punishing water shortages, to the community’s downwind from petrochemical plants breathing in the toxic exhaust 24/7. From all of us who live on or near military and Department of Defense sites, to all the cities and towns across the country that have under maintained rail lines and understaffed, overloaded bomb trains running through them, more and more of us are being set up for sacrifice.

And by the time most of us realize that we have been or are in the process of being sacrificed, it will already be too late. And so, we have to fight now. Accepting the wholesale sacrifice of entire communities from East Palestine to South Baltimore should be in every sense of the word unacceptable in any society worthy of the name. And yet, not only has it been accepted as a thing that corporations, shareholders, and policymakers can get away with. After 40 plus years of runaway deregulation, public disinvestment, and total corporate domination, America’s sacrifice zones are no longer extreme outliers. I mean, they are quite literally a harrowing model of the future that lies in store for most of us, especially as we continue to spiral into the age of climate chaos with all the economic, and political, and humanitarian crises that are going to come with that. This is only going to get worse. If the corporate monsters, corporate politicians, and Wall Street vampires who are poisoning our communities while poisoning and exploiting us at work are not stopped.

And it’s going to be us, the ones who are in the path of all this reckless and preventable destruction, working people fighting as one who are going to stop them. And today’s episode proves both of these points, because today we are talking about the story of another community sacrificed at the altar of corporate profits and government negligence. And this story very literally hits close to home for me, because I am talking to my Baltimore neighbors here, folks who as you heard live in Curtis Bay, Mount Winans, and other parts of South Baltimore, about a 15-minute drive from the Real News network studio that I am sitting in right now. And before we turn back to our incredible panel of guests, I want to just read from two articles here to help set the table a little bit, because I know a lot of folks around the country haven’t heard about the nightmare that Curtis Bay and other residents across South Baltimore have actually been living and fighting through.

And so, I want to make sure folks are up to speed here. And in a guest commentary that was published in Maryland Matters this February, Michael Middleton and Dr. Sacoby Wilson write South Baltimore is a sacrifice zone. The six communities that make up South Baltimore, Cherry Hill, Westport, Mount Winans, Lakeland, Brooklyn, and Curtis Bay rank in the top 3% of the state for environmental burden using a Maryland Department of the Environment or MDE screening tool. Curtis Bay, the highest in the state, is Maryland’s poster child for environmental injustice. Industrial areas near Curtis Bay house oil tanks, a wastewater treatment plant, chemical plants, landfills, the country’s largest medical waste incinerator, and more. Heavy diesel trucks, frequent residential streets. The Wagner Point’s in Fairfield communities that were once Curtis Bay’s neighbors to the east are gone. Those residents accepted buyouts to leave between the 1980s and 2011 after a series of chemical spills and accidents.”

Now, in another piece published by CBS in December, the authors note An air quality study confirmed the presence of coal dust in South Baltimore’s Curtis Bay community, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment. Daily, a dark-colored dust permeates every aspect of life. A new study proves what neighbors have long suspected, that the dark dust is coal. The community of Curtis Bay Association held a meeting Thursday evening to discuss these new findings. The results showed that coal particles were found at eight community sampling locations, including residences, areas near businesses, a church, park, and school,” the MDE said. The question remains, who will put a stop to this? The dust is on their homes and in the air they breathe. At points of my life living in Curtis Bay, I’ve literally spit up chunks of coal.” Said David, a Curtis Bay resident. A recent air quality study confirmed coal dust from the CSX Transportation, Coal export terminal is present all over Curtis Bay.

The year-long study was released by the community of Curtis Bay Association, South Baltimore Land Trust, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Maryland, and the Maryland Department of the Environment. The study found that coal dust is dispersed throughout the community daily. It blows off of the coal piles at the terminal and off rail cars during transport, and then the community is overburdened by the air pollution it causes. At the meeting, Thursday night, Dr. Chris Heaney from Johns Hopkins School of Public Health explained the harmful effects of coal dust pollution, adverse impacts on our respiratory health, on your cardiovascular health, your heart health, Heaney said, they’re related to things like stroke. I’ve got 11-year-olds that both have asthma, and my wife does, and I do.” Resident Patrick Shanyfelt added. Neighbors say they hope the findings of the study will be the evidence they need to shut down the terminal. That’s something they’ve been pushing for since a buildup of methane gas due to poor ventilation in the terminal caused a major explosion in December of 2021.”

All right, so I hope y’all will forgive me for that extended intro, but I hope you’ll agree that it was necessary to just give you a little bit of the context. We’re just scratching the surface here. And I’m going to leave it to our amazing panelists here to really bring you more up to speed. But I just wanted you to know what we’re talking about here in case you have not been following, or have not heard, or seen what’s been going on in South Baltimore all these years. And that’s going to be a running theme as we continue to investigate the causes and the extent of America’s sacrifice zones, is that every zone has a unique story. Everyone has a confluence of factors contributing to the pollution and all of that stuff, but the larger problems that are affecting our communities are very much interconnected.

And in fact, a lot of the time it’s the same companies, like the railroads, whether they’re derailing and poisoning communities like East Palestine, or whether CSX is getting coal dust over everybody in South Baltimore because they’re not covering their goddamn coal trucks. Pardon my French, right? I mean, this is how these issues are connected even if the stories themselves are distinct.

So, anyway, I’m going to shut up. You guys have heard enough from me. I want to turn it back over to our panel since we are lucky enough to have folks here on the call. And I wanted to just go back around the table and ask if we could just fill in more of those gaps for listeners. Let’s start where we are right now in the year of our Lord 2024 and maybe like the past year. For folks who are maybe just learning about what y’all have been going through all this time, what do you think they most need to know about what you are living through right now? And then, in the next round around the table, we’ll dig into how we got here. Dave, take it away. And then, whenever Dave’s done, Tiffany, go ahead and hop in.

“I've learned since I’ve lived in Curtis Bay to not take deep breaths: breathe, but not take deep breaths.”

David Jones: One of the crazy things that I want people to realize is that this can affect anyone at any time. For people who don’t believe that this stuff will never affect you, let me tell you, you got another thing coming. And East Palestine is a prime example. This was a bustling community, thriving community, generational community, very well put together community, just like a lot of communities out there that are not affected by these things. And in the blink of an eye can all be taken away from you. And, people don’t realize we live in these bubbles and we think that nothing can touch us, but we have trucks that drive down the road with chemicals that we have no clue what’s in. And then, in the blink of an eye, something could go off. This stuff happens regularly to the point where most people, because, and excuse my language, we’re too fucking enthralled in these phones, in this technology to get our heads out of our asses and realize that there’s a lot more going on around us and it really affects people in a terrible way.

I mean, to go to this climate thing that Meg just had, and to hear someone from East Palestine basically describe how their family was just torn apart from this injustice. And then, for someone like the EPA who’s supposed to protect us and protect them, to tell them, What you’re saying is not right. And there’s nothing wrong here.” This woman gave this testimony and said that all of her hair fell out. Her children are getting rashes and unexplained symptoms. Her father-in-law has had several respiratory issues and had to be hospitalized. And, it’s so crazy to think that they had to go through this when they’re not used to it. And then, to think what we’ve had to go through growing up, and also how long this has been going on, and it’s generational. And then, to hear crazy things like numbers that are going around, like CSX is trying to give them $600 million to fix the problem. That’s not enough. I’m sorry, but it’s not. And it’s really dividing that community.

And then, you have communities like mine with the incinerator. There’s a four-year investigation on the medical waste incinerator. $1,750,000 fine. And for the people who are supposed to make sure our health and safety is there to say it took four years to do this and that that’s the largest fine in Maryland history is disgusting. And then, for the community to have to further the investigation on that, because these entities are not doing it. MDE, EPA, our governor, our city council, our mayor, all these politicians, our senators, our representatives, it’s disgusting. I mean, we just got testimony from the community at a city council hearing on the fact that there was 27 more instances in 27 days of this medical waste incinerator doing the wrong things. And I think we ended up recording 127 incidents and they had another million-dollar fine.

And this company has already taken new owners for this company and they vowed that these things would be changed and they’re not. And the reason they’re not is because like Ms. Angie said, and everyone else has said, profits are more important than people’s health and safety. We are low-end commodities if anything. And, if it doesn’t hurt the shareholders and it doesn’t hurt the bottom line, it doesn’t matter. And it’s disgraceful. It really is. And, it’s very disheartening. We were at a meeting the other night for the association and I’m not a very emotional guy, I really don’t try to show my emotions, but I lost it. I’m dealing with health issues for the first time in my life. I had COVID, and I have long COVID, because of that I just got shingles, and I’ve never been an unhealthy person.

So to walk out into my neighborhood to get fresh air, and when I take a deep breath in, I’m choking and I’m wanting to throw up, and I can’t get that, is disgusting. And then, the fact that I’ve never been able to relate what other people in the community have talked about and now I can. So, it very much drives home for me now.

Tiffany Thompson: Okay. So piggybacking what Dave said about people living in bubbles. I lived in a bubble for the longest time, as I said… Let me start with what I’m experiencing now. I’m experiencing regular weekly exposure to different unpleasant odors and smells in my community. The smoke going up from the medical waste incinerator, and the coal near the houses. So that’s what we’re dealing with now. And unbeknownst to me, as Dave said, people lived in bubbles and didn’t think it can happen to him. And to piggyback on both he and Angela spoke about. I grew up in Cherry Hill and my backyard was train tracks, where CSX transported coal and other things down. Growing up, I didn’t know it was dangerous. We used to cross those road trains when they would stop to get to the grocery store in Baltimore County, because that was closer to our house and it was better for us to shop there than in our own community.

So, we would cross those tracks, touch the coal trains, sometimes pick up the coal off the tracks, because we weren’t taught that that was unhealthy. We didn’t know any better. And I guess, our parents didn’t either, because it was something that was normal for us. And, as of today, the tracks are still there, coal still being transported. We were out there a couple of weeks ago and saw a train going down with coal. So, nothing has changed within the last 50, 60 years regarding that. But, the only difference is now that I know it’s unhealthy, I try to help educate others in that community as well as Curtis Bay, because you are walking around wondering why everybody has breathing issues, why these children are coming up with asthma when it’s not always a family trait, it’s because the conditions has worsened.

And, I mean, it’s sad to say, I know so many people walking around with oxygen tanks. And like Dave said, he’s come out to get fresh air. I’ve learned since I’ve lived in Curtis Bay to not take deep breaths: breathe, but not take deep breaths. And when you leave Curtis Bay, you leave the South Baltimore area, you can tell the difference in the air. You feel it and you smell it. Sometimes, coming from North… What is it? Rosedale coming down 95. The closer you get to South Baltimore, the more noticeable the change in air quality is. And that’s something that shouldn’t be. So again, like I said, I lived in a bubble, because I didn’t know. I just figured, Well, I don’t live there. It didn’t affect me.” But it did affect me where I was living, which was probably a mile from here, a mile, two from here. I was heavily affected and didn’t know.

David Jones: And just one more thing also, as far as living in that bubble, and most people don’t think about, they are literally building houses around here on old landfills that people don’t know. They are literally building multimillion dollar homes in Pasadena on the Anne Arundel County line that is less than three quarters of a mile from that medical waste incinerator. They’re building these new communities that people have no clue what they are buying into. And this is acceptable. And I just don’t understand it. I mean, if you go over… And again, I’m probably going to say it wrong, I think it’s Tanya Yard, or Tiny Yard, or something like that, it’s over off of Fort Smallwood Road, there’s a huge community. I mean, they’ve literally built probably more than 2000 homes over there, if not more. And for these people to be putting this investment into a community that they don’t know what is happening is disgusting.

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Carlos Sanchez: And, just to add on to what David and Ms. Tiffany said so far, just touch base on what David was saying, it’s such a generational struggle. There’s been a petition from 11 years ago where community members from Curtis Bay were having the same issue that we’re having now, coal dust getting into the community. And, that petition where we were seeing it, there were stuff that they were asking for that we’re asking for now, which was some up-to-date system or something to be placed so that coal is not getting into the community, because there is no safe level of coal dust or particulate matter that people should be breathing in. And, for those who may not know, particulate matter is just super small particles that you can’t see. And, the test PM, which is particulate matter. And then, when you think about the size of the particle, it could be 2.5, 10, stuff like that.

And, during that petition, they were asking to be monitoring, to have something to be said, so that coal dust not blow into the community. And comparing that to what we have now, which is practically nothing, we can see that those residents were ignored, right? And, even though, we were presenting this to MDE and residents like Dave, and Tiffany, and everybody in Curtis Bay, they were expressing their concerns, because they were living so close to this open air coal terminal as well as the rec center. There is the Curtis Bay Rec Center, which is one of the very few public buildings in the heart of the community.

It’s less than 1000 feet away from that open-air coal pile. And that’s where people play bingo. They go there to vote. Kids go to play and hang out. And they have expressed their concerns for decades. And yet, they were being ignored. And, it got to the point where they were ignored, it wasn’t even brought to attention until back in December, 2021 when that facility exploded. And there was coal dust all around the community. And, that was really eye-opening for MDE and stuff to actually start paying attention. And, that was as well frustrating, because to some extent, because at the end of the day, you don’t need a coal explosion to see that in the community. And that is something that many residents were expressing prior to that explosion. On a daily basis, they see this dark coal dust… They assume [inaudible 00:33:58] coal dust inside of their homes, to the point where they feel imprisoned in their own homes.

And I don’t know about other people, but for me, a home is somewhere where you can be free, feel safe, and thinking and imagining that you’re not even safe in your own home and can’t even open your windows, that is just something that has to be changed. And, just to add a bunch more, it’s not just the terminal. It’s a lot of things and a lot of facilities, like they’ve mentioned, the medical waste incinerator, that’s another issue. In Curtis Bay alone, there’s 70 air polluters in Curtis Bay. And, that is just something that cannot be in communities, that should not be allowed to be in communities where people live and try to have a place to come home, despite who was there first, which industry or community. The thing is that there’s people living there, there’s lives at risk, there’s kids at risk, and that should not be the case where we are having facilities like the open air coal terminal affecting the community. It’s the community and the people’s health should be first, not money should be the priority. The priority should be people’s health.

Angela Smothers: Right now, with so many community members. And I did hear Dave say, I’m currently now required and prescribed medication due to… I kept thinking I was having an ear infection, but then when I get to the doctors, she would check me out and nothing would be wrong. I was like, But something is, because when I drink, it’s just so painful.” And, she said, It’s allergy.” I never had any type of medical issues. But now, without this medication, all of this mucus is forming in my nostrils and the back trying to… And I literally wake up gagging, because you know what I mean? I just don’t want to put it in my system. So I have to bring it up. And, I mean, for the last couple of years, I mean, I’ve been otherwise healthy. But now, it has really taken a toll on my body where I’ve had to not only take it every day, my doctor have had to increase the dosage due to this. You know what I mean?

And, it’s not allergy, it’s not so whatever these toxins is in the air, it has definitely taken a toll, not just with myself, many people in the community has passed away and suffering with symptoms either like mines or similar, but they’re all respiratory illnesses that, you know what I mean, a lot of community members, out of the clear blue sky, but it really isn’t out of the clear blue sky. It’s out of the black dusty sky that has… I mean, we’ve had to live in and through for so many years. So, we just got to do something about it. We need for it to stop sooner than later.

Maximillian Alvarez: Well, I’m feeling so many things as I imagine our listeners are, right? And, I guess I’m just more than anything so angry hearing this, right? As I’ve been angry hearing the stories of folks from East Palestine, as I’ve been angry reading about and listening to communities in Louisiana and Cancer Alley, right? Angry as I’ve been learning more about all the communities across the country, from North Carolina to Colorado who are all being pumped full of PFAS and forever chemicals. It’s like, Holy shit. This is everywhere. And it’s been happening around all of us.” And, I’m angry because I also know the way that our media, and that these companies, and often our own government respond to these dire and serious issues that residents and working people like yourselves are raising. They’ll say, Well, how do you know it’s from the coal cars? It could be because you smoked for a year when in your 20s.” Right? The burden of proof is on you all.

Even though, again, for folks I guess who don’t live in Baltimore, I’ve driven to Curtis Bay, I’ve gone there, I’ve talked to some of these folks in person. Dave has shown me pictures of the stuff he and his neighbors are coughing up on a day-to-day basis. I’ve seen those CSX locomotives that go for miles that have rail car after rail car filled with coal and nothing covering it. I’ve seen the coal dust blowing off of it, that gets in people’s lungs. And as we’ve talked about, it’s not just the coal, it’s not just the rail terminal. It is a toxic soup of pollutants that are just blasting into homes, into people’s faces, in their lungs, into their children’s lungs day in and day out. And, this is the way that our communities just get gradually poisoned.

And then, when we start feeling those effects and start trying to raise these issues, it’s all a big like, Well, how do you know it was this corporation that caused that? Or maybe it’s just a family illness that you’re dealing with.” It’s never the obvious culprit’s fault. It’s always on the residents to do this painstaking years-long work to prove what we all already know.

And that’s such a huge part of the imbalance here, whether you’re talking about East Palestine, Cancer Alley, or South Baltimore, that is another thing that connects these struggles, right? And I mean, I’ve already said it to you all before we started recording, I’m going to say it here for everyone listening, this is not the last time we’re going to be talking with folks living in South Baltimore. This is just the beginning. So I don’t want to ask our amazing guests to try to give everyone the whole story in one hour of conversation here. But I want to just go around the table again and ask if y’all could say a little bit more about how we got here, what you as longtime residents have seen over the decades, how you’ve seen your communities change, how the response from the government, and the media, and these industries has changed over time. I guess, just give folks a little more of a sense of how far back this goes and how you yourself have seen your homes change in that time.

“Your mind can’t wrap around some of these injustices and how they’ve just been swept under the rug.”

Angela Smothers: Let me start by saying, I’m a non-smoker. I’ve never smoked at all. Detested throughout the years when conversations have been had with the railway owners, we weren’t trying to be unreasonable. It’s not just as simple as picking up a spoon, sitting it down. We know the rail train… I mean, you know the train tracks are not going to move. We just ask that you give… You know what I mean? Be considerate of you. You know what I mean, you are infecting. You are causing so much harm and shortening of life to so many people, I mean, worldwide. So we just ask that you, you know what I mean, just transport your poison in a safer manner, only to be told that, Oh, we were here first. We were here first.” So, throughout the years, and when Carlos, and the crew did their studying for the test, I mean, I chuckled, because I was thinking, Oh, I’m dirty.” You know what I mean? I was trying to clean up before they came to do their tests thinking… You know what I mean?

And I felt horrible, because all of these years, I used to make my kids… The windowsill, I live high up, and I used to be like, How in the world is this black dirt getting in the windowsills?” And lo and behold, I mean, I guess, I could have had a V8, that commercial. You know what I mean? All of this time, until this project began, I never… That’s why I’m so grateful and will continue working, because all of these years I had no knowledge. I mean, I remember, but I just did not put two and two together, until I really… I mean, I guess, I’ve been living through it, and you know what I mean? But now, thanks to Carlos and everyone that just pulled me in and made me… You know what I mean? In on the project with trying to get safer practices for us, I wouldn’t even have given it a second thought, because of previous attempts to get some safer practices in play.

But, never, never would I have even imagined without the crew that I’m so grateful for and thankful that it’s late, but not too late, that I believe us pulling together, we’re going to get some satisfaction. We’re just going to keep on and keep on, and you know what I mean? I’m just grateful that it made me realize I wasn’t dirty. Okay, go ahead, Dave.

David Jones: So, definitely, I agree with Ms. Angela. That’s how a lot of people feel. Me and my wife, you can ask pretty much anyway, we’re clean freaks. Because we have to deal with this dirt all the time, it does, it makes you feel like you’re a dirty person. And, I get people that come in here all the time and they’re like, Your house is immaculate.” And I’m like, Not to us, it’s not, because there’s dirt everywhere.” It’s just, you clean your house from top to bottom, and then you come back in a couple days and it’s just dirt again and there’s dust everywhere. And, it’s so gut-wrenching. And, like she said, it makes you feel like you’re just a dirty person.

And then, on top of that, you asked how we got here. We got here because these industries, yes, they were here first. I’m not going to say they weren’t. Industries were built around the waterways, because it was the easiest accessibility for them to get goods to them and to ship their goods. And also for them to pollute, believe it or not. They could dump a lot of this stuff in the waterways.

But CSX, that’s a big thing they say is that they were here first. Okay, you were here first, but guess what you brought being here first? You brought people, and you brought families, and you brought generations that built neighborhoods around your industry in order to make your industry successful. And all you’ve done is looked at these people as commodities and people that are basically disposable to you, because there’s so many people.” And it’s disgusting. It is beyond disgusting. And, to think that this has been going on now just with CSX… CSX has been here 130 years. So, 130 years of disinvestment in a community and just plaguing the community worse and worse. And, I’m 44-years-old almost, and I can’t even see back 130 years ago. So God knows what they were doing in the beginning stages when they were here to this community, and what that has is an impact for generations to come. Hearing that at some point, Grace Chemical, during the Manhattan Project, they were doing stuff for that, for the atomic bomb. And come to find out that they have radioactive isotopes buried under their plants.

Your mind can’t wrap around some of these injustices and how they’ve just been swept under the rug, and kept quiet, and that people think it’s okay. I mean, Bethlehem Steel’s another one. My grandfather worked there his whole life. Same thing, just trying to provide a good wage for him and his family and take care of his family. He died from mesothelioma from working there. And then, for them to say, Nothing can be built on this property ever. If it ever was, we’d have to dig 100 feet down and take all these chemicals, all these PFAS, all these isotopes, everything out, and burn it, and then bring that back in here.” They dug down 30 feet and just built all those new warehouses over there. God knows what those people are going to end up dealing with. They’re now putting the wind turbine plan over there to build the new turbines, the wind turbines for the whole nation. It blows your mind what these people do at the expense of people’s lives and health and safety over profitability.

Tiffany Thompson: I concur with what Dave and Ms. Angie said. And I can now go easy on my children because I’m always asking about the dust. And, Oh God, I just cleaned them windows. Can’t y’all go behind me and clean.” So, that I can now go easy on them. Because I was like, Gosh, we’re probably the only house on this block that windows look like that.” Not looking at anybody, but that’s just me, because I’m used to cleaning. We will continue to stick together, and support one another in this battle to

Maximillian Alvarez: Oh, and just-

Tiffany Thompson:… Go ahead.

Maximillian Alvarez: … Oh, sorry. I was just going to say if you had any other thoughts about how you’ve seen things change over time or just has it gotten worse? Has the industry or the government, have they cared less over time? Just anything you want to say about that.

David Jones: There’s been no change. That’s the problem. There is no change. All they do now is they gaslight in a sense. They say they’re going to do stuff, but they really don’t.

Tiffany Thompson: Yeah, yeah. And I’ll only say worse, because now I realize it. I see it, I understand what’s going on. And I guess, what they have been doing has increased. So I would say, it’s gotten worse. Even with the transporting of medical waste and other stuff, they’ve increased their distance, they’ve increased their loads, so it gets worse. But again, we’re going to continue as the South Baltimore communities to stick together, and fight, and leave no community behind. They might get tired before we get tired.

Carlos Sanchez: Not much to add. Ms. Tiffany definitely really ended that strongly. I don’t know anything else to add to that. But, I just agree with everything said. Nothing has been changed and this fight is long from being over.

Maximillian Alvarez: Well, and Carlos, if I could just quickly ask, what is it like being a young person growing up in this? And realizing that, Oh, the places I’ve been playing in have been filled with coal dust and toxic fumes this whole time?”

Carlos Sanchez: Yeah, I mean, the first thing that comes to mind every time I get asked that question is frustration. Seeing how the world actually works. It’s not all nice and day outside. But once you start seeing what you’re breathing in and what you’re actually around and how other people have it compared to you when, like people in Roland Park, and seeing that the choice or that… What’s it called? Yeah, that decision-makers, that decision is not up to us, but those who are supposed to be taking care of us, and they’re refusing to do anything, it’s just really frustrating.

But, as well, it also keeps me able to work with other youth and working within the communities and seeing the work that I’m doing has an impact, not just on trying to see the end goal, it motivates me to get going, like Ms. Tiffany said, working together and seeing and fighting for what the goal is, which is getting these communities to get what they deserve basically, fresh air, cleaner communities, permanent affordable housing, and not having to worry about what they’re breathing in. And for those generations to come after me, being able to grow up not having to care about what they’re breathing in, and not having to be doing what I’m doing and fighting for these basic human rights. I think that’s all I have to add.

Angela Smothers: Can I say one other thing real fast? I know in Curtis Bay, just like in Mount Winans, isn’t it quite ironic, the playgrounds are built right at the tip of where these trains are passing with their poisoning, there’s always a playground? You know what I mean? Right there, our playground and basketball court, which is always occupied by the kids or people playing basketball. And, you know what I mean? I don’t understand why… I mean, I’m glad to have the support of some of our community members. But, higher up, they need to stop. I mean, I don’t want to misspeak and say that they don’t care, but I believe more need to be done to put a stop to it. I mean, you know what I mean? To insist, pull back permits, stop. You know what I mean? Fine them, do whatever it deems necessary, because the cost of what it takes to operate in a safer manner, I think they probably eat that away. You know what I mean? And won’t even miss it. So, greed and their profit is sickening. It’s definitely sickening.

Maximillian Alvarez: And it’s making all of us sick, right?

Angela Smothers: Even sicker. Even sicker.

Maximillian Alvarez: Even sicker. Yeah. I mean, again, whether we’re talking about industrial pollution, whether we’re talking about war, whether we’re talking about climate change, the people in charge have our society’s foot on the gas going in the wrong damn direction, while we’re all screaming, Hey, we need to be going that way.” Right? We need to be cutting this stuff back, not doubling down.” And, that’s why we all need to be involved in this fight. That’s why I am begging folks listening to this, don’t just hear this as another sad story that’s happening somewhere else where you don’t live. I need you to see this and understand this as, A, fundamental and unforgivable injustice that is being done to our fellow workers. For that reason alone, we should care and we should be involved. But also, for our own self-preservation, for the preservation of our own children, and their children, and their planet, right, that they’re going to be living on.

We all need to be getting involved in this fight, because this is where we are all headed. This is where working-class communities across this country and across the world are headed. And, we need to stop this freight train. And the people in positions of power are not going to do it on their own. CSX, Norfolk Southern, the legislators in Washington or Annapolis, they’re not all going to just give us the world that we want and deserve clearly. So we got to fight for it, and we got to fight together, and we got to bring our struggles together, and fight as a coalition of the forgotten communities of this world saying, We will be forgotten no more. Your fight is our fight.” And on that note, I’ve kept y’all longer than I said I was going to, and I want to be respectful of everyone’s time.

And as I said, we are absolutely going to do more conversations on this show with folks in Curtis Bay, across South Baltimore, including folks on this call. So yeah, please, you guys, stay tuned. We’re going to have more for you. But, while we wrap up this episode, I just wanted to go around the table one more time quickly and ask if y’all could say, A, again, if you have any final parting messages to folks listening to this, what you want to impress upon them about what y’all are going through and why folks listening should need to care about this and get involved. And also, are there any concrete things that people can do right now to help? What can folks living in and around Baltimore do to help? And what can folks around the country do to help? And then, we’ll close out.

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Tiffany Thompson: Okay. For one, they can encourage their local hospitals to not send their medical waste to Curtis Bay and have it sent somewhere else, or away from our low-income black and brown neighborhoods. They can help just support us, and our fight to end coal. And again, to encourage their hospitals to send their medical waste elsewhere and write other hospitals that’s not even in our state to stop sending their medical waste here, because it’s killing our residents. It’s hurting our children, and it’s harming our environment.

David Jones: I think, number one for me is that people need to get their heads out of their asses, and they need to learn how to educate themselves on the demographics of the people who they’re voting into these positions of power do not care about us. They only care about themselves and forwarding their careers and their special interests. And when I say special interests, I mean, industry because that’s who they work for. And I’m going to say something right now, and I truly mean this, and I might only be speaking for myself, but for me and my community, we’re not looking for people to feel sorry for us, that’s not what we want here. We want people to just understand that this is generational, people have built lives here, and for people like one of our incumbents who’s trying to be reelected, which is…

For Sheila Dixon to say that she’s for the people and she wants to change the dynamics of Baltimore City and South Baltimore. And for her to say recently at a meeting she had with some South Baltimore residents, basically when asked, What would you do to help with the disadvantaged issues of industry and other things in the community of Brooklyn, and Curtis Bay, and other communities of South Baltimore?” For her to say, These communities should just move.” Is disgusting. And, it’s not that simple. How would you like to work your whole life to live in a place… Again, this is not only my house, but this was my grandfather’s house. And then, put all this investment into it, and then be told that you need to just move and get pennies on the dollar for your house. If I lived anywhere else in the city, if you took this house and you put this house in Fed Hill that I live in, it would not be worth $100,000. It would be worth $500,000. And it’s disgusting.

And then, we have investors coming around here trying to buy these properties for pennies on a dollar to hold onto them, so that when industry does encroach, they can get big payoffs. It’s disgusting. So again, don’t feel sorry for me. Don’t feel sorry for my community, because I need you to realize that this could happen to you at any moment or anyone you love.

Angela Smothers: I piggyback off of Dave. I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me or this community. Just support us. I want more community members. I mean, I know they’re tired from the years of requesting and doing what we are doing now, but you’ve come this far, you’re still here. As long as you have breath in your body, don’t give up, join the fight, because the more of us speak out, tell our truth, and what we are experiencing while we are here, how many people we’ve lost, we just have to keep fighting. I mean, it didn’t happen overnight and you know what I mean? We’re just going to keep pushing forward until we get resolution. We have to.

And we just need everybody to understand, if it’s not happening to you, if you’re one of the fortunate that do not live in an area that is subjected to what we are being subjected to just do a family trace and somebody in your family, if not yet, just wait, they will. So, don’t wait until that happened. Anybody can see that we’re suffering and anybody that’s not choosing to put profit over people realize that this is a request that is plaguing so many people. And, if ever you had to fight for anything, this is a cause that is worth fighting for.

Carlos Sanchez: I agree with everything that has been said. And, I also will add in that there is a petition that we’re trying to work with people and across the country to get EPA to require that the coal trains are covered. And so, if people could sign on to that, that would be really great. Or, if they want to work with us, that’s awesome too. We got to get those trains covered, because they go through South Baltimore and other communities, and that’s also affecting them with coal dust. So, yeah, I think I’ll leave it at that.

David Jones: And not to cut anyone off, but to piggyback off of what Carlos just said, and Carlos is the one that brought this to my attention, I don’t know how many coal cars in a year come through my community and other communities, but there is literally 500 pounds of coal that is lost from every coal car. And if you could even begin to digest that or fathom that, because I can’t, it’s just unbelievable. And, to hear that in other states that there are literally people that take buckets and put them underneath of coal train railways and bridges and are literally catching coal the size of baseballs is just unconscionable. Again, I more than anything want to just thank everybody who’s on this podcast today that’s in this fight with me, and that continues to give it their all.

And, for people to understand that this is almost like a second or third job for us because we do have lives, but this definitely encroaches tremendously into our lives on a day-to-day basis. Most people get to go home, and relax, and do this, and do that. For us, we don’t have that ability. We are still in this fight. And, for me, for instance, yesterday, just trying to go down and take some pictures to document the injustices in my community, and then being accosted by CSX workers, and a federal police officer, and trying to be intimidated for something that I should not be intimidated for, and for me to feel like I’m the person who’s in the wrong is disgusting.

“Oh, the places I’ve been playing in have been filled with coal dust and toxic fumes this whole time?”

Maximillian Alvarez: All right, gang. That’s going to wrap things up for us this week. I want to thank our amazing panel of guests from across South Baltimore, Dave, Ms. Angela, Ms. Tiffany, Angie, and Carlos. I also want to thank the brilliant and amazing Nicole Fabricant for putting us in touch. Shout out to Nikki. And as always, I want to thank you all for listening and thank you for caring. We’ve got more coverage coming your way on the industrial sacrifice zone that South Baltimore has become and about the working people living in these communities who are fighting back.

But follow the links in the show notes if you want to learn more about this story and about how you can get involved in that fight. We’ll see you all back here next week for another episode of Working People. And if you cannot wait that long, then just go subscribe to our Patreon and check out the awesome bonus episodes that we’ve got there waiting for you and our patrons. And go explore all the other great work that we’re doing at The Real News Network, where we do grassroots journalism, lifting up the voices and stories from the front lines of struggle. Sign up for the Real News newsletter so you never miss a story, and help us do more work like this by going to the​re​al​news​.com/​d​onate and becoming a supporter today. It really makes a difference. 

I’m Maximillian Alvarez. Take care of yourselves. Take care of each other. Solidarity forever.

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Studio Production: Maximillian Alvarez
Post-Production: Jules Taylor

Maximillian Alvarez is editor-in-chief at the Real News Network and host of the podcast Working People, available at InThe​se​Times​.com. He is also the author of The Work of Living: Working People Talk About Their Lives and the Year the World Broke.

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