Each day, thousands of Norfolk Southern railcars, gorged with coal from Virginia and West Virginia mines, flow along on tracks to the Lambert’s Point Pier in Norfolk. There, the precious cargo is unloaded and shipped to ports around the world.
Despite the reduction of its use as fuel for heat and power factories due to global warming, the end of coal as a source of energy will not die any time soon.
Coal is a great economic benefit to the Hampton Roads region. But for some, its impact on the region’s environment and on the health of residents living near coal piers or along the tracks where railcars traverse each day has long been a local concern.
Environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and concerned residents have sought with little success to convince politicians and the State’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to effectively monitor and reign in potentially harmful coal dust.
Recently another group entered the fray to push for change: New Virginia Majority. According to Lafeetah Byrum, New Virginia Majority (NVM) Climate Justice Organizer, the group has been quietly reaching out, engaging and organizing people in the Lambert’s Point community and other parts of Norfolk to launch an effort to confront the issue.
For a number of months, NVM operatives and locals have been doing their historic, legal and scientific research on the issue, Byrum said.
She said they are readying to apply direct action to confront Norfolk Southern and local and state officials hoping to prod them to address coal dust and the deadly health effects it fosters.
“Our organization has so many issues related to crime and justice, reentry, economics and other issues facing poor and Black communities,” said Byrum. “There are things which impact us from the shadows, such as the coal dust. It can’t be seen, but affects the health of children and adults who can be seen every day.”
It is not only coal dust, Byrum said, but also, the remnants of coal which may leak from the cars or from the dumper used to extract it from them at the piers. This also is seeping into the ground and migrating to underground and surface supplies of water.
Along with the dust from coal, according Byrum, pollutants from other industries, such as the shipyard and industrial sites along the Elizabeth River, also contribute to the environmental nuisances in the air and water.
Byrum said state and federal health surveys indicate that particles of coal dust have attributed to a number of chronic health issues: asthma, bronchitis, heart disease and other ills related to breathing.
Also, kidney and lung cancer, bouts of pneumonia and black lung, akin to what coal miners experience, may be attributed to coal dust.
Byrum said in federal air quality measurements on a scale from 1 to 134, with 1 being the best, Norfolk stands at 102, one of the lowest in the region.
According to her, Norfolk Southern has a history of operating through the city since 1892, when it was called Norfolk and Western Railroad. You can still see the N&W initials chiseled in the super structure of the underpasses built to deter trains from blocking traffic along busy Virginia Beach Boulevard and others.
In 1962, it began to operate a coal distribution center at the Lambert’s Point Piers. In 1970, instead of removing the coal from the railcars and piling it in huge piles, it was left in the cars to be rolled onto a huge machine which flipped, two of them at a time, over to be stored and later placed on ships.
In the early 1970s, when the Nixon Administration created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), it began imposing more stringent air and water pollution standards. However, Norfolk Southern was granted exemption to state rules and the company’s regulations were grandfathered back to 1962 when the environmental protection laws were not as stringent as they are now, according to Byrum.
“They have been basically operating without oversight… and basically self monitored,” said Byrum. “Every five years, the state issues them a permit to operate, from the State Department of Environmental Quality. (DEQ).”
John M. Brandt, Regional Air Compliance and Monitoring Manager of DEQ officials, cannot deny that there is a coal dust problem. But, according to reports, the dust is not high enough to warrant the cost to craft covering for cars or a shelter over the coal dumpsters at the pier to prevent dust from spreading.
Brandt said the only instance when coal dust would be stirred into the air is when the cars are flipped to have the contents dumped to be stored.
Further, he said, it is hard for coal dust to escape from cars while they are making the slow trek along the rails through Norfolk.
He did acknowledge that he has seen dust flow from the railcars as they travel at higher speeds out in the rural areas.
Weather may play a part, he said, noting that warm weather may cause the coal in the railcars to loosen which is prone to create dust.
Brandt said after a series of complaints against Norfolk Southern, the company paid for a study to determine the extent of coal dust pollution in the region, in coordination with DEQ.
The study ran one year from August 1, 2015 to July 1, 2016. To conduct the study, Norfolk Southern paid to have monitoring stations installed at Redgate Avenue in Ghent, the coal yard itself, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) site off Monticello Avenue, and as far away as NASA/Langley Air Center.
During the survey for six days for one hour, the machine would take “ambient” air samples to determine the level of coal dust pollution or other noxious elements.
He said the study revealed, and EPA and DEQ agreed, that the level of coal dust pollution was not harmful enough to be considered a health threat.
Monitoring continues, but the machine has been disconnected on the Lambert’s Point Pier. The NOAAA site still operates to monitor coal and other air pollutants.
Brandt said the railroad company concluded covering individual railcars or building a structure around the coal car dumpster was unnecessary and too costly.
Byrum said, “Norfolk, specifically, is tied to industry and that is what makes the city so great. But the story of coal dust being a nuisance and the story related to coal dust and the impact on the lives of the people has not been fully told. This is especially true for minority communities who are dying of these chronic diseases at a disproportionate rate.”
By Leonard E. Colvin