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Economy

The Coal Was Destined for India. Now It’s Polluting the Air in Baltimore.

A tale of two coal economies, one post-industrial, one industrializing.

The Baltimore wreck.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

For those living near the Port of Baltimore, the transportation and storage of coal on its way from mines in the Appalachian Mountains to far-flung foreign kilns is “a mundane but ever-present imposition,” Chloe Ahmann, a Cornell University anthropologist, told me. Ahmann once worked as an elementary school teacher in Curtis Bay, a residential neighborhood adjacent to the working port, and wrote a book on the area’s post-industrial present.

“There are stories going back generation,” she said. “Coal dust covering everything in the neighborhood — bicycles, porches, windowsill. People wipe coal dust off their windows as a daily ritual.”

With the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge and subsequent shutdown of the port, that coal now has nowhere to go for the foreseeable future. Baltimoreans don’t want it, but its intended recipients thousands of miles away in India most certainly do.

“The top recipient of U.S. steam coal shipped from Baltimore by far over the past five years has been India, where the brick manufacturing industry has been a major customer,” the U.S. Energy Information Administration said in a report on the impacts of the bridge disaster. In January alone, the Port of Baltimore exported almost a million tons of coal to India, up almost three-fold from January of last year, according to Argus, a commodity data provider. In total, 17 million tons of thermal coal — the type used in power plants and brick kilns — left the U.S. via Baltimore in 2023, S&P Global found by analyzing Census Bureau data.

India is the world’s second largest consumer of coal after China, and coal accounts for over 70% of India's emissions from burning fuel, according to the International Energy Agency. (In contrast, coal accounts for a fifth of the United States’ emissions from combustion.) About a quarter of India’s emissions come from industry, much of which uses coal in its processes, including steelmaking, and cement and, yes, brick manufacturing.

Brickmaking in India is often done on small scales by local producers, but even so, its energy consumption is “comparable to the organized construction industries such as cement and steel,” according to research published in Nature India. Many of those bricks are used to build homes, part and parcel of the country’s astounding economic growth. Along with its steel and cement industries, brickmaking has transformed India — whose inflation-adjusted per capita GDP of around $1,800 in 1990 would have made it one of the world's poorest countries today — into the third-largest carbon dioxide emitter in the world.

The same brick industry that produces the literal building blocks of India’s homebuilding sector is also responsible for immensely damaging particulate pollution. The combination of coal and biomass used to fire brick kilns is responsible for around 75 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions — comparable to the total emissions of Washington State, Arizona, or the 2021 California wildfires — and 100,000 tons of black carbon emissions, according to the Climate and Clean Air Coalition.

Air pollution in South Asia is one of the largest public health problems in the world. India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh all ranked in the bottom 10 of 180 countries for air quality, according to the Yale University Environmental Performance Index. In 2019, air pollution was estimated to account for around 1.7 million premature deaths in India. “Brick kilns, involving the burning of low-grade coal, are one of the major sectors that contribute to air pollution in South Asia,” a World Bank report said, with the brick industry making up over 90% of particulate emissions in some South Asian cities and 15% of the most dangerous small particulate emissions in Delhi.

In a story that will be familiar to much of industrial and post-industrial America, these industrial processes are both an important economic engine and an obvious detriment to health locally and are contributing to the climatic changes that are already having devastating effects in South Asia. Efforts to regulate the brick industry have already run into complaints that efficiency requirements will be too expensive for cash-strapped businesses and will result in lower employment in the sector.

In the vertiginous world of globalized capitalism, different regions using the same resource — the Appalachian coal mines, the Baltimore port, and the Indian brick manufacturers — can all at the same time be at different stages of industrialization and post-industrialization, with differing attitudes toward the coal that powers and pollutes them. In South Baltimore, the people living with the dust from the coal pier no longer sees any positive relationship between industrial activity and their own well-being, Ahmann told me.

The Baltimore and Ohio railroad, which has been part of the rail conglomerate CSX since 1980, began construction in 1827 and has long shipped coal from West Virginia and other Appalachian states to the East Coast. Baltimore’s Curtis Bay neighborhood, where Ahmann lived, is adjacent to a coal pier operated by CSX. “It’s an iconic local scene, right by a local playground, stone throw from several elementary schools and homes,” Ahmann said, making the neighborhood both “heavily industrialized and very much a lived-in place.”

While the Maryland government trumpets direct and indirect employment at the port of around 15,000 people, that’s about half the number that worked there in 1970.

“It’s no longer the case that industry is a major employer in South Baltimore,” Ahmann said. “It’s not like it was 40 years ago, when everybody knew somebody whose livelihood was attached to industrial production in this place.” Instead, people in the area “cobble together lives from low-wage service jobs,” she said. Overall, manufacturing employment in Maryland has been roughly cut in half since 1990.

In late 2021, a CSX coal facility in Curtis Bay exploded, damaging nearby homes and spreading tremors for miles. Following the blast, a coalition of community groups and the Maryland Department of the Environment investigated particulate pollution in Curtis Bay and found coal dust “present throughout the community,” with coal dust coming from the terminal itself, as well as train and truck traffic.

“We should not have open air coal piers period, and certainly not in a residential area behind a playground,” Ahmann said.

Among the many fears locals are nursing as the Key Bridge lies in ruins is that the coal will simply pile up at the port as long as it remains blocked. “These piles are going to grow every day,” Ahmann told me, describing it as “stark visual evidence of the untenability of this situation.”

Matthew Zeitlin

Matthew is a correspondent at Heatmap. Previously he was an economics reporter at Grid, where he covered macroeconomics and energy, and a business reporter at BuzzFeed News, where he covered finance. He has written for The New York Times, the Guardian, Barron's, and New York Magazine. Read More

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