When a container ship slammed into Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge, traffic halted not just on I-695 but also at the third-largest port on the Eastern Seaboard.

The Port of Baltimore is one of the nation’s top 10 for international trade. It’s number one for the import and export of cars and light trucks.

It’s also the nation’s second-largest terminal for coal exports, and that’s where the so-called “Rahm Emanuel” effect has kicked in.

Following the advice of President Barack Obama’s former chief of staff and consigliere (“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste”), some environmental activists have called upon the tragic bridge collapse as a rationale to bring down a permanent closure of the CSX coal terminal at the Port of Baltimore.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) has tracked coal exports leaving the broader Port of Baltimore and has reported that annual coal exports departing have averaged 20 million short tons in three of the past five years. As a result of the railroad’s federal common carrier obligations, the majority of that coal, roughly 14 million short tons, moves through the CSX piers in Curtis Bay, most of it to American allies like India, Japan, and the Netherlands. According to a recent impact study by Martin Associates, the Curtis Bay facility supports 1,400 jobs and brings in $335 million in economic value each year.

It also adds $21 million to state and local tax coffers.

But environmental activists, including “environmental anthropologist” Chloe Ahmann of Cornell University and others who do not like coal, have urged a review of CSX operations at the port following the temporary closure of the port due to the bridge collapse.

“In times of crisis, it’s not uncommon to hear appeals to return to ‘business as usual.’ It is an understandable refrain, as thousands of Baltimoreans depend on the Port to put food on the table every night—to say nothing of the impact that its closure will have on Maryland’s economy,” Ahmann wrote. “But we should also pause and question whether a return to normal is in accordance with environmental justice.”

Even before the bridge collapse, Ahmann and other community activists were targeting the coal terminal. They released a report conducted by “community members, students, and citizen scientists” on the impact coal shipping is having on nearby communities. The Collaborative Investigation of Coal Dust, Air Pollution, and Health Concerns in Curtis Bay paper paints a dire picture of a community suffering from the health impacts of decades of environmental pollution in the city.

The report suggests that people living near the terminal inhaled coal dust on an hourly basis and that community-placed sensors detected higher particle pollution levels than monitors used by the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE). Residents complained about breathing problems from air pollution.

The paper blamed the problems on “putative coal dust,” which environmentalists and the community paper’s authors claim is coming from the coal terminal. As the paper was released, MDE indicated that the study would play a large role in the permitting process for the renewal of the operating permit for the CSX Transportation-owned terminal. “We will let the science and data identified in this study lead the way,” said state Environment Secretary Serena McIlwain.

But critics say the paper is more akin to an advocacy piece, not a thorough and rigorous scientific review. Starting with the fact that the authors seemingly invented the term “putative coal dust.”

Environmental experts who spoke to InsideSources said they were unfamiliar with the term, and a Google search found its only use in the “Collaborative Investigation” paper itself. The term isn’t commonly used in public health or air quality monitoring conducted under more formal and rigorous standards.

In the paper, the community authors said that to identify “putative coal dust,” they sought factors “comprised of a combination of major contributions from… black carbon, among other potential pollutants.” That presents another problem. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “black carbon is the sooty black material emitted from gas and diesel engines, coal-fired power plants, and other sources that burn fossil fuel.”

CSX doesn’t burn coal at its terminal.

“The environmental hazards [described in the paper] are not at the coal terminals,” Dr. Adrian Moore, Reason Foundation’s vice president of policy, told InsideSources. “It’s the use of coal.”

The claims made by the paper were so questionable that CSX engaged several third-party consultants with expertise in “particulate matter speciation, air quality monitoring, and toxicology” to review the findings of the collaborative report. This rebuttal review was shared with state regulators in February and has been made public on CSX’s websitenoting that the air pollution identified by the activists is common to industrial, urban areas and that the community report “fails to present evidence showing that coal dust is present throughout the Curtis Bay community.”

Additionally, the expert reviewers found that the activists’ report “fails to present evidence demonstrating that the Curtis Bay community is overburdened by particulate matter air pollution as compared to other areas of Baltimore City.”

In fact, “the Collaborative report does not actually measure coal dust, just what they ‘assume’ is coal dust.”

“All parties acknowledge Curtis Bay’s air quality is largely impacted by diesel emissions. For the sake of this report, the researchers ‘assumed’ all diesel emissions were coal dust when in an industrialized setting like Baltimore, there could be any number of sources for these diesel emissions,” according to the CSX rebuttal.

“A permitting decision based on this Report would be arbitrary and capricious and not in compliance with Maryland law,” wrote CSX Senior Director Raghu Chatrathi in the company’s letter to regulators.

InsideSources asked one of the academic researchers listed in the collaborative report, Dr. Christopher Heaney of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, for a response to the critical review of the Collaborative research. He declined to respond.

But competing research papers, offered against a push by environmental activists to bring about an end to the flow of U.S. coal through the Port of Baltimore comes at a particularly problematic time for the global economy. Shutting down the Curtis Bay terminal would have ripples throughout the supply chain, but according to some national security experts, it could also impact international relations, given the role the export commodity plays in supporting American allies concerned with the rise of Chinese influence.

Other commentators have highlighted their belief that while the environmental well-being of Maryland and the rest of the United States is important, the economic certainty that comes from the facility is an important item that cannot be lost in the debate over the future of the Port of Baltimore, especially following an incident as severe as the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge.

“Reopening the port as quickly as possible and helping workers in the meantime is essential for Maryland’s economy,” says Christopher B. Summers with the Maryland Public Policy Institute.

“It’s also in the best interest of the state, nation, and world. This means everyone should be working toward the same goal: ensuring the Port of Baltimore reopens to keep local jobs and the local economy thriving.”