November 6, 2023 - Residents in Newport News’ Southeast Community and Norfolk’s Lamberts Point have complained for decades about coal dust pollution from passing trains, saying it causes sickness and dirties their homes.
Southeast resident Yugonda Sample-Jones said her son’s health problems arose only after they moved to the community in 2009, when he was in middle school. Within a year, she said he needed to use a nebulizer due to asthma. Sample-Jones said she had a “strong suspicion” coal pollution played a role.
“We never had these problems until we moved to the Southeast Community,” she said.
Coal mined from Appalachia has been transported through these communities for more than a century, unloaded at large transport terminals in both cities, where it’s loaded onto ocean-going vessels. Residents say their homes, yards, and anything left outside is coated in coal dust by the passing open top trains.
While past environmental studies have detected higher levels of coal dust in the impacted communities than those around them, the findings have not linked the coal dust to health problems in either community.
A new state study hopes to revisit the matter by deploying monitors to test air quality and assess potential health risks associated with dust from the coal storage and transportation facilities in Newport News and Norfolk. The Department of Environmental Quality study, called the Tidewater Air Monitoring Evaluation project, will measure and analyze toxic metals and particulates in the air in the two communities and use the information to conduct health risk assessments.
While residents appreciate the effort to further study the issue, many are skeptical it will result in meaningful changes. Ernest Thompson, a 74-year-old Southeast Community resident, believes another air study shouldn’t be necessary to assess whether there is a significant health concern. People can often run their hands across a surface and detect a significant amount of coal dust.
“We don’t need monitors. We are the monitors,” Thompson said. “Our homes are the monitors. All you’ve got to do is come out and understand. And if you think it’s a joke, power wash some of these houses and come back in two weeks and you can then begin to see what we are subjugated to on a daily and weekly basis.”
Lamberts Point coal terminal, in operation since 1885, is the largest coal export facility in the U.S., with the capacity to move 48 million tons of coal a year. Norfolk Southern operates the terminal, which can move 8,000 tons of coal per hour from its 1,850-foot-long pier. The Southeast Community coal terminals began operations in the 1880s and currently have two operators — Kinder Morgan and Dominion Terminal Associates. Kinder Morgan can ship about 16 million tons per year, and the Dominion terminal has a 22-million-ton annual capacity.
Despite the persistent complaints about coal dust pollution from residents, previous studies have not linked it with health issues in the communities.
A 2017 study, for example, by the Virginia Department of Health’s Division of Environmental Epidemiology, looked at the level of particulate matter measuring 10 microns or less to determine if the air quality could be harmful to the surrounding community. The tiny particles can be inhaled and reach deep into the respiratory tract, and the department said these particles have been associated with exacerbation of asthma, changes in lung function, inflammation, and premature death in individuals with lung and heart disease. But the study concluded that particulate levels at sampling sites near the Lamberts Point terminal did not pose a risk to public health because they fell below federal thresholds.
A 2005 study of the Southeast Community by the Peninsula Health District found asthma rates were more than twice citywide and state averages, with 800 emergency room visits per 100,000 people for asthma. High rates of other chronic disease were also found in the community. The report did not examine the role of environmental factors in assessing residents’ health, but given concern expressed by residents about coal dust, the report “strongly” suggested an examination of air quality for asthma triggers and remediation.
A New Look at Air Quality
The Department of Environmental Quality is getting ready to launch an 18-month air quality monitoring study, funded through a $526,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The DEQ declined to answer questions or make any representatives available to interview. Information about the status of the study was gathered through DEQ public presentations.
During an Oct. 19 public meeting, Air Quality Monitoring Manager Charles Turner said the DEQ will begin installing several air monitors next year — four in Lamberts Point and five in the Southeast Community. They will measure levels of particulate matter and various toxic metals in the region’s air, including arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, chromium, lead, manganese, and nickel. Turner estimates the project will end in late 2026.
The DEQ setting up air monitors has been “a long time coming,” according to Malcolm Jones, who grew up in Park Place, a neighborhood near Lamberts Point. Jones said the trains come in and out of the community, delivering coal, bringing noise and coal dust — which covers the cars, houses, playgrounds and gardens.
“You’ll see it everywhere,” Jones, 35, said. At a glance, the dust typically looks like dirt. “But obviously, if you swipe your finger across, it is definitely coal.”
DEQ Tidewater Environmental Justice Coordinator Grace Holmes said the Virginia Department of Health will use the data to produce health risk assessments for each community. Those will involve local health departments to determine whether there is an exposure to a dangerous pollutant, what if any health impacts there are, and what actions could be taken to ensure the community’s safety.
In addition to the monitors, the DEQ is giving free PurpleAir Sensors to residents that send periodic updates on the particulate levels to an online database, purpleair.com. But few have been distributed. As of Oct. 19, only eight had been given out across both communities.
Turner declined to speculate on any action the state could take in response to the study results.
“We’re not going to pre-judge anything until we start seeing the data,” he said.
The Coal Transport Companies
Facing criticism over the years, the companies that transport coal through Norfolk and Newport News have taken some steps to monitor and curb the impact of coal dust on neighbors.
Amy Baek, spokesperson for Kinder Morgan, said the company maintains air emissions compliance for its facility through various control measures under an air permit issued by the DEQ.
“We use a wet suppression system for the handling of coal throughout the facility,” Baek said. “Additionally, railcar unloading operations are conducted within a fully enclosed building.”
Baek said the coal stockpiles are dampened via a Rainbird aerial system with roughly 20,000 gallons of water every hourly cycle. During vessel loading, wet suppression systems minimize or eliminate dust. The water used for suppression is recycled and reused.
Norfolk Southern spokesperson Heather Garcia said the company has taken substantial steps to reduce the amount of coal dust at Lamberts Point and has monitored particulate levels in the area for over 30 years.
“The results have been consistent and conclusive: Dust from Lamberts Point does not pose a health threat to neighboring communities based on federal environmental standards that set thresholds to protect human health and the environment,” she wrote in an email response to questions, referencing the state’s 2017 study.
Norfolk Southern also has undertaken other measures to reduce coal dust pollution, including spraying loaded coal cars with water and a dust suppression agent, installing hoods and wind guards that shield conveyor belts carrying coal to the ship loaders, and vacuuming the Pier 6 deck where coal is loaded.
The rail cars that transport coal are open top, and the site at Lamberts Point where they are transferred are also open. Garcia said Norfolk Southern has evaluated the possibility of enclosing the dumpers several times but determined that is not technically feasible.
Officials from Dominion Terminal Associates did not respond to requests for comment.
While it will be a few years before the DEQ’s study is completed, other citizen-led efforts are underway to address coal pollution. The Sierra Club is among several environmental groups petitioning the EPA to enact stricter regulations regarding coal pollution from open-top trains. The groups argue that coal pollution is damaging local aquatic life and human health due to heavy metals and toxic chemicals. The petition notes that some citizens have recorded videos of trains losing coal during transit.
Ann Creasy, a field director of the Sierra Club, said despite resident concerns, “decision-makers have just not stepped up.” Creasy said rail companies “have substantial responsibility and ability to address the coal pollution because they’re transporting the coal and open top rail cars.”
“Given the scale of the problem and the level of residents reaching out with concern and evidence of impasse, the level of response by decision makers does not match,” Creasy said.
Pray First Mission Ministries Pastor Lathaniel Kirts, whose church is in the Southeast Community, has participated in protests outside Norfolk Southern and advocated for companies to cover train cars transporting coal. Kirts said besides covering the train cars, he wants the coal terminals to set up wind fences or a large dome to prevent the coal from blowing into the community.
Former Newport News Mayor McKinley Price, who lives on Shore Drive about two miles from the coal terminals, said he always sees coal dust on his back porch. At one point, he said the city considered having huge screens to block the coal dust, but the council didn’t think it would be effective and that it would be an eyesore.
Price noted the push for clean energy means coal will eventually disappear. He hopes the EPA will allocate money for cities like Newport News to help with the cleanup the coal piles once that day comes.
Skepticism of Change
Newport News resident Jannie Bazemore, 73, doesn’t recall a time when the Southeast Community was not plagued by coal dust pollution. She grew up in Ridley Circle, not far from the coal terminals.
“Our biggest concern had always been the fact that it was thick on the window sill on the inside of your house,” she said. “And therefore, as my mother said, if it’s getting in our houses like this and on our windows, then it’s getting into our lungs.”
Besides closing down the terminals and removing all those coal piles, Bazemore doesn’t foresee a solution that will entirely fix the problem.
“So am I optimistic? No,” she said.
Thompson thinks there could be more political willpower to rid the Southeast Community of coal pollution, but suspects it won’t materialize unless the area is gentrified. Census data indicates about 87% of the Southeast Community’s residents are Black. He believes “the powers that be” haven’t fixed the issue because the area is predominantly Black, and their concerns aren’t taken as seriously.
“You got to understand in the Black community, they always relegated us to the areas where there was industrial waste,” Thompson said.
In Lamberts Point, where city data indicates 51% of residents are Black, Jones also has doubts about whether DEQ’s air monitoring effort will lead to meaningful change. He said that’s because the coal industry is well established and Norfolk Southern isn’t going anywhere. But also because it’s taken so long even to get to this point.
“Everyone has been dragging their feet to do anything about anything,” he said.