Before Lafeetah Byrum signed up as New Virginia Majority Climate Justice Organizer and began organizing people on the impact of coal dust, she had a personal experience with the issue.
Her mother retired from the Navy after 24 years and landed in Norfolk, as many others have done after leaving the military.
Byrum attended Old Dominion University which sits a short distance from the Lambert’s Point piers where coal is loaded onto cargo ships and exported around the globe to power economies and warm homes.
She majored in political science and after graduating, moved her family to the Norview area of Norfolk. Soon after her three-year-old son was diagnosed with asthma. Byrum eventually learned that Norfolk has one of the highest concentrations of coal dust pollution in the region, which may have explained the child’s suffering from asthma and bronchitis. She said she moved to Chesapeake, where the problem abated.
Now she is holding meetings in a room at First Baptist Church, Lambert’s Point where she and New Virginia colleagues and residents of the community have been quietly planning a campaign to address the coal dust issue in that part of Norfolk.
Lambert’s Point sits adjacent to the site on the piers where the coal is trucked via rail cars each day. Then they are placed on a mechanical apparatus which spins them over and dumps the vital and deadly commodity onto a conveyor system that transports it to waiting cargo ships
Although recent surveys by Norfolk Southern which transports the coal have reported the level of coal dust exposure is not dangerous, Byrum says there are other studies which say otherwise.
There have been pleas from activists with the Sierra Club and residents of Lambert’s Point and other parts of Norfolk to have the coal-loaded rail cars covered to prevent dust from spewing into the air, especially during the summer months.
Also activists have suggested that a covered building would be constructed where the coal cars are dumped to reduce the escaping coal dust entering the air.
Another precaution identified is watering down the coal when it is being dumped to lessen the dust particles from escaping even more.
But despite stringent environmental protection laws imposed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Norfolk Southern has managed to escape these measures, claiming all are too costly.
Further, in 2015 to 2016 Norfolk Southern station air quality monitors placed around the coal pier to detect the presence of the coal dust in the area indicated no significant threat.
Byrum and her forces are not convinced. They are gearing up to confront local and state officials in some fashion to bring about a resolution to the issue.
The group has not formally engaged city officials or even the civic league leaders yet, to enlist their services. Byrum said her group first must organize and educate the people from the community to address the issue systematically.
Thomas Harris and his family have lived in Lambert’s Point in the 1200 Block of West 27th Street for over 30 years. At 78, he still works as a cafeteria worker with the Norfolk Pubic Schools.
Lambert’s Point, Williams said, has changed since he arrived in the community. Many of the old timers have died or left or their children have moved to other cities and parts of the country.
But there is a still a large number of long time residents living in the community.
He has also served as the Lambert’s Point Civic League President, and the Sierra Club brought the issue of coal dust and its impact to the community’s attention over a decade ago.
He said ardent environmentalists and residents have talked about air pollution caused by coal dust for years.
Neither he nor his wife, his grown children or grandchildren, have experienced any physical ailments like asthma, he said.
Harris said he has sat in on meetings held by Byrum and the New Virginia Majority and hopes their efforts can bring about resolution to the situation.
“People have talked about the issue, but they may say they have not seen any evidence of it in the air,” said Williams. “You can see how dark the water has gotten in the (Elizabeth) River. I respect what the new people are doing. But we also need residents who have lived here for a long time to come forth. Then along with the New Virginia organization and Norfolk Southern, something can be done.”
Williams said five years ago Norfolk Southern representatives told him and other residents of the Lambert’s Point Civic League that it would respond to any concerns they have.
Since then no communication has come forth. Williams said in response to the Sierra Club’s study on the level of coal dust in the area, he believed that covering the coal cars and the dumping center, and spraying both down with water that were suggested to Norfolk Southern would help the situation.
Rev. Anthony Paige, the Senior Pastor at First Baptist, Lambert’s Point, has opened the church’s doors of support for the New Virginia effort.
They meet periodically at his church.
Paige said not only is the coal dust a problem, but also the coal leaching into the soil and making its way to the surface and underground water supplies near the piers, including the river.
“We value Norfolk Southern,” said Paige. “But the coal dust is a hazard. The company has become so arrogant and is refusing to address the public’s or the environmentalists’ concerns. So I think we have no other choice but to protest.”
He continued, “Not only do we hold Norfolk Southern responsible, but the elected officials who make policy. The elected officials have failed over the years to make policy to protect the people from this menace.
“From the Governor on down to the city council. It seems they have turned a blind eye to this invisible menace which affects so many people. They all must be held accountable.”
By Leonard E. Colvin