Virginia to begin monitoring air pollution around Hampton Roads coal terminals
NEWPORT NEWS – The southernmost tip of Newport News, where the James River makes its final bend before meeting the Chesapeake Bay, never stands still.
It is a place to come and go. Every year, millions of short tons of coal travel by rail through yards owned by Kinder Morgan and Dominion Terminal Associates, then ship overseas. Next door, Newport News Shipbuilding ships bound for the US Navy and other buyers perpetually rise above the waters. And through it all winds Interstate 664, one of three arteries to cross the miles of water that separate the city from Norfolk.
At the center of this vortex is the Southeast community, a low-income, predominantly black neighborhood where residents have complained for decades of heavy air pollution that darkens their homes and makes people sick.
“Our community is saturated with particles from everything that has happened around us,” said Newport News Vice Mayor Saundra Nelson Cherry.
This year, Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality is beginning a three-year study to quantify what’s happening in the air in the East End of Newport News and another low-income, predominantly black area of Norfolk, named for the coal terminal at Lambert’s Point. operated by Norfolk Southern there.
“We will be able to know what the concentrations are in the community area to a better degree than in the past, and we will know if there are any areas that maybe have issues that need to be addressed,” The DEQ air quality officer Charles Turner told residents at a community meeting earlier this month.
DEQ touts the Tidewater Area Monitoring and Assessment Project as a step toward resolving what officials acknowledge is a long-standing concern.
The installation of five air monitors along with a variety of sensors that will measure levels of particulates and various toxic metals in the air in the area will be particularly helpful, they say.
But while residents say they’re thrilled that Virginia is finally conducting comprehensive air monitoring, many remain openly skeptical that the study, which is funded by a $526,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of the environment, will lead to real change.
“They continue to do extensive studies and that’s all they do,” said Ernest Thompson, a resident who grew up in the Southeast community and then returned as an adult in 2000.
“Everyone there knows there’s a problem,” said George Covington, another resident who owns 10 rental units in the neighborhood. “And the problem begins and ends with a lack of management and a lack of state officials and the governor doing anything for the community. Nobody is tackling the problem. »
“We are surrounded”
Newport News’ East End and Norfolk’s Lambert’s Point have been at the center of coal dust complaints brought before the General Assembly since the 1980s.
According to old news reports, residents began filing coal dust pollution complaints with the State Air Pollution Control Board in 1983 after the modern Newport News coal terminals opened.
Studies in 1985 and 1987 confirmed that coal dust originated both from the terminals and from the railcars that transported coal to them. A December 1985 United Press International article reported that “1,000 tonnes of the 90,000 tonnes of coal shipped in open carriers to Newport News and Norfolk terminals vanish into thin air”.
Newport News terminals then developed a “wet suppression” system for their coal piles, which DEQ said reduced dust emissions by 80%. The wagons remained the subject of political wrangling: even today the railways are not required to cover wagons carrying coal as they pass through the state, although Norfolk Southern is required to submit an annual report to the General Assembly on the measures it has taken to reduce emissions from its cars.
Today, Kinder Morgan spokeswoman Amy Baek said coal piers operated by the company use a variety of measures to control air emissions. Stockpiles are “wet stripped” with 20,000 gallons of water per hour, while railcars carrying coal are unloaded in enclosed buildings and the water is also used to reduce dust during ship loading, she said.
Newport News Mayor McKinley Price told the Mercury that while he believes pollution has improved over time, the problem still hasn’t been solved.
“We don’t know the extent of the problem,” he said.
Residents are convinced that the problem still exists. While 2014 data from the Hampton and Peninsula health districts, which includes Newport News, show a lower incidence of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease compared to the rest of the state, the incidence of asthma in two districts was above the state average. More importantly, a 2005 study by the Peninsula Health District found that the southeast community had asthma rates twice the city and state.
“People are feeling the pain,” said resident Rosa Turner. “We buried our relatives.
Quality of life is also reduced, Covington said. Many of his tenants are unable to keep outdoor furniture in their yard or dry their clothes due to coal dust, and he estimates the constant need to change overloaded air filters costs him $12,000. and $15,000 per year.
But DEQ and many residents who visited in April to discuss the monitoring project made it clear that coal dust is probably not the only problem. Instead, multiple sources of pollution affect the air quality in the region. Several pointed out that the heavily trafficked Interstate 664 — which sees regular backups during peak hours and is the main conduit south for Outer Banks traffic in the summer — has no vegetation or sound barriers that could help. to minimize pollution where it passes through the southeast community.
“We’re surrounded,” Cherry said.
Thompson said it was no accident: “You’ll only notice in black communities, that’s where these things are happening,” he said.
Rumors of lawsuits
One of DEQ’s main goals with the Tidewater Air Monitoring and Evaluation project is to ensure that local communities are involved and well informed of the efforts. At the April community meeting at Newport News, officials encouraged residents to submit proposals for sites where air monitors should be placed in a computer and promised transparent communication.
“Communities like East End need to be meaningfully involved in projects like TAME,” said Grace Holmes, DEQ Environmental Justice Coordinator for the Tidewater Region.
Nonetheless, some residents expressed frustration, particularly over what they described as a lack of coordination with community members who have been heavily involved in previous studies, including the Southeast CARE coalition which has played an instrumental role in a 2016 EPA-funded effort to identify environmental health issues in the community.
“Which part of our collaborative coalition in this community was involved in your grant proposal?” Rosa Turner asked DEQ officials. When told that agency staff had been the primary writers of the grant application, she replied, “Somehow this grant should have always involved the coalition, even in as stakeholders.”
The coalition’s Angela Harris also complained about the absence of Virginia Department of Health officials, which she called “rude” and “disrespectful.”
“The health department needs to be here in this room,” she said. “And the EPA has to be here in this room.”
For some, studies have simply been exhausted as a solution. Litigation, they said, might be the most fruitful route.
“I think in reality the City of Newport News, the owners of these coal terminals know that a class action lawsuit is on the horizon,” Thompson said.
It was a sentiment shared by Rosa Turner at the April meeting.
“I would love to see you all do a class action lawsuit,” she said. “The DEQ is wonderful, but part of your job is regulation – recommending regulation, and if there’s no recommended regulation as a result of that, then you’re not telling your citizens what they are going to get from this study.”