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Stricter federal air pollution standards likely won’t help Hampton Roads communities plagued by coal dust

A Norfolk Southern rail car carries coal near Lambert’s Point. (Photo by Katherine Hafner)
A Norfolk Southern rail car carries coal near Lambert’s Point. (Photo by Katherine Hafner)

Growing up in Norfolk, Malcolm Jones spent a lot of time in the Lambert’s Point neighborhood.

While playing basketball and hanging out with friends, he noticed what appeared to be an ever-present sheen of dirt or dust, covering just about everything in sight. Later in life, he learned what it was: coal dust.

“The coal dust is very visible on cars, on doors, on houses,” said Jones, now a community activist. “You leave anything outside for a couple of days, and you can see coal dust residue on it.”

The coal dust comes from the massive Norfolk Southern export terminal that borders the neighborhood. It’s the biggest coal export site in the country, handling up to 48 million tons of coal each year, which arrives by train and is then loaded onto ships headed around the world. 

Terminals in Southeast Newport News ship another couple dozen million tons of coal each year.

For half a century, residents in the surrounding, historically Black communities have complained about coal dust impacting their health and homes. 

Coal sits at the terminals in uncovered rail cars or giant piles, which neighbors say allows the coal dust to spread. The pollution can cause serious respiratory and cardiac issues.

Residents say the state hasn’t taken enough action. 

So now, they’re shifting focus to push local leaders to find ways to curb coal dust, said Lathaniel Kirts, a pastor in Southeast Newport News.  

“We'll tackle the General Assembly next year or maybe even some federal legislation,” Kirts said. “We'll see where we go. But right now, start locally. Do what we can locally, and then focus on what we could fight later on. Because it's always another fight.”

The federal Environmental Protection Agency recently acknowledged that pollution from small particles like coal dust is even more dangerous to people’s health than previously thought, leading to thousands of premature deaths each year. 

The agency recently proposed tighter national air pollution rules on small particles like coal dust to reflect that danger. 

The new standards "will result in cleaner air for everyone, protecting children, people with asthma, people with heart disease and respiratory problems," said Cristina Fernandez, air and radiation division director with the EPA’s Mid-Atlantic region. "This standard will be especially important for communities that are historically overburdened by pollution. So overall as a nation we will see results."

But the new standards won’t help neighborhoods in Norfolk and Newport News battling coal dust anytime soon. 

One reason is Norfolk Southern’s operation is mostly exempt from modern air regulations, because it predates them and was grandfathered in.

But the larger issue is that regulators have limited data about particulate air pollution at the neighborhood level – and that limited data determines whether the state has to make changes. 

Officials say they need more evidence establishing health impacts near Hampton Roads’ coal terminals. They’re finally embarking on a serious attempt to get that data. 

But residents say their decades of lived experiences should count. 

They have countless stories of seeing family and friends suffer from asthma and other chronic respiratory problems. Some people who moved out of the neighborhoods report that their asthma symptoms quickly improved.

A 2005 study from the Peninsula Health District showed the Southeast area of Newport News experienced asthma at more than twice the rate city and statewide averages, but there have been few other public health studies since. 

“Having more data undoubtedly will be helpful,” said Aaron Isherwood, an attorney with the national Sierra Club who has worked with the Hampton Roads communities. “But I think we all know that there's a problem there, and the community has been waiting a long time for some action.”

Jones is now working with the University of Virginia’s Repair Lab, which researches environmental injustice in the Commonwealth, to document the impacts of living alongside coal terminals in Norfolk and Newport News. 

Coal has been transported in these areas since the 1880s. Jones said historically Black neighborhoods have borne the brunt of the industry’s impact, and faced decades of disappointment.

“It just hurts,” Jones said. “To be unheard for that long, it just takes away from the trust of the public.”

Managing coal dust in Hampton Roads

Kirts, who grew up in Norfolk, heard of the coal dust issue at Lambert’s Point. But he didn’t realize it was also an issue in Southeast Newport News until moving there about five years ago.

“I moved onto the other side of the water and was like, ‘Hold on, the same thing is going on? How can I fix that?’”

Kirts works at Pray First Mission Ministries along Interstate 664 – not far from the major export terminals in Newport News run by Kinder Morgan and Dominion Terminal Associates. The facilities are home to several giant piles of uncovered coal. 

“It looks like several mountains of black coal sitting in your backyard,” Kirts said. “You drive past it, and it's an eyesore, number one. But it's killing you slowly and silently.”

The community wants the terminals to put in place protective measures that have been used elsewhere, like Baltimore and West Virginia. 

Those could include tall wind fences to curb dust flying off coal piles, or a big dome to cover the piles. 

A Kinder Morgan spokesperson said in an email that the company complies with control measures to minimize coal dust as required by its state air permit, including spraying water on coal piles to limit dust and unloading third-party rail cars in a fully enclosed building. 

Over at the Lambert’s Point terminal, Norfolk Southern doesn’t have similar requirements.

Because the facility was built before modern air regulations, it is not subject to them, unless it significantly expands or changes its operations. 

“Major construction there would require a permit for new or modified features, but we have not had to do any significant construction there that has necessitated that,” said Heather Garcia, a spokesperson for Norfolk Southern.

That’s because the company operates under a 32-year-old state air permit that has only narrow regulations related to some construction at the time.

But Garcia said the company takes some voluntary measures to control coal dust at Lambert’s Point, including spraying rail cars with water and shielding conveyor belts that carry coal to ships.

Norfolk Southern has also done its own monitoring of particulate levels in the area for several decades, Garcia said. 

“The results have been consistent and conclusive: Dust from Lambert’s 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.”

Kirts said it feels like the companies are dismissing the communities’ lived reality.

“These big corporations are spreading coal to other parts of the world,” he said, and are “doing that on the backs of these predominantly Black communities.” 

Not enough monitoring 

Advocates say a bigger issue is that there’s simply not enough data to actually capture air pollution in Virginia. 

The EPA recently tightened air standards, which sets in motion a two-year process for states to prove that they comply. 

Based on the latest available data – from 2020 through 2022 – Virginia already does. That means the state likely won’t have to do anything differently.

Officials draw that data from just 17 monitors around the state, including Hampton, Norfolk and Virginia Beach. Critics say that could miss pollution hotspots. 

Seth Johnson, an attorney at the nonprofit Earthjustice, said air pollution regulations only work if communities have accurate air quality measurements.

“Strengthening a standard is really important,” Johnson said. “It's really important to set that benchmark and tell people, ‘This is what counts as safe air.’ But if you don't know what the air quality actually is, the impact of the standard is going to be not as great as it could be."

Vivian Thomson, a retired UVA environmental policy professor and former member of Virginia’s regulatory air board, said inadequate monitoring has been an issue for decades.

Sometimes, a community’s nearest permanent air quality monitor can be 60 miles away.

"Such monitors, by design, will not capture localized air quality problems," said Thomson, who also produced a podcast about the issue.

She noted the EPA has cited rail yards as a potential source of localized pollution problems that merit a closer look.

Fernandez, with EPA Mid-Atlantic, said officials would love to have an even more extensive monitoring network – but “we don’t have endless resources.”

The monitor locations are based on population – but local monitoring is likely better suited to analyze what’s going on in specific communities, she said. 

There is hope on the horizon for a vastly expanded trove of good data on air pollution, from a  satellite instrument launched by NASA and other federal partners last year.

Right now, it’s focused on pollutants including carbon dioxide and ozone. But eventually, NASA says it could provide information at a neighborhood level about particulate pollution.

There is also a new state effort to improve local monitoring near Hampton Roads coal terminals.

Behind Kirts’ Pray First church building, affixed to a shed, is a small white device that collects real-time information about air quality.

It’s part of a new Tidewater Air Monitoring Evaluation Project run by Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality. 

In 2020, the EPA gave the department more than half a million dollars to investigate air quality related to coal dust in Norfolk and Newport News. The project will include putting up a few regulatory-grade monitors in each community to measure pollution.  

In the meantime, the state’s giving out small, less powerful PurpleAir sensors to community members like Pray First, to help assess air quality in their own backyard. 

These communities have pushed for more monitoring for years, and are eager to get the new project to get off the ground.

At the same time, they say they don’t need more evidence to know there’s a problem.

Taking things into their own hands

Jones, Kirts and others have launched a new coalition called Coal Dust Kills. They say the community can no longer wait for more data and are pushing Newport News for a local ordinance to regulate coal dust as a public nuisance. 

“Time isn't on our side when it comes to health and environmental justice,” Kirts said. “The longer that we wait, that's the more that we're going to be seeing more negative health disparities within our communities that’s already having generational issues.”

Several community members spoke at a City Council meeting earlier this year, advocating for physical protections like coal domes or wind fences. 

Jones said the city should regulate coal dust as a public nuisance. Beyond health impacts, the residue forces residents to regularly power-wash their cars, for example.

“It’s a visual nuisance. It's a cleaning nuisance. It's a costly nuisance,” he said. “So there's a lot of different impacts.”

In an email, Mayor Phillip Jones’ office said the city is exploring opportunities for federal environmental justice funding that could help address the issue. 

DEQ said in an email it’s premature to consider specific strategies until the new data is analyzed.

At the federal level, the Sierra Club is also pushing the EPA to regulate uncovered train cars that carry coal — like the thousands that sit waiting to be unloaded at Lambert’s Point.

Kirts said he’s not giving up the fight. He sees it as an extension of his ministry.

“I care about their lives as much as their souls,” he said. “I can preach and teach you. But how do you live outside of here? How can you live an abundant life outside of the church and be able to live freely and breathe freely?”

Katherine is WHRO’s climate and environment reporter. She came to WHRO from the Virginian-Pilot in 2022. Katherine is a California native who now lives in Norfolk and welcomes book recommendations, fun science facts and of course interesting environmental news.

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