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Mace & Crown | April 26, 2018

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Changing the Conversation to Coal Dust

Changing the Conversation to Coal Dust

It is no debate that climate change affects citizens of the world globally.  When it comes to combating these harmful impacts locally, Chesapeake’s Sierra Club focuses its environmental advocacy in the Norfolk area.

On April 14, Norfolk residents participated in a discussion forum concerning coal dust impacts on local neighborhoods. The Sierra Club Chesapeake Bay Group, Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN) and ODU’s EcoReps sponsored the event.

Norfolk is home to the Lambert’s Point Coal terminal, one of the world’s largest coal transportation facilities that transfers up to 48 million tons of coal per year. Area residents expressed their need for Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality to more accurately assess the health and environmental impacts of coal dust in Norfolk.

Leslie Morrison, a campaign director with CCAN, explained less coal is being used in America because of a growing awareness of its environmental effects.  As such, tougher regulations have forced companies to start exporting more coal to Europe and Asia.

As part of her healthy community campaign, Morrison works specifically with the “regulatory side of the clean energy crisis.”

Coal dust problems are most harmful to human health in the residential areas of transport, according to CCAN

Sierra Club fact sheets suggest that significant amounts of coal dust “blow over into neighborhoods and agricultural areas, polluting waterways, crops and the air we breath”.

Virginia health studies report that in communities where coal terminals are present, a higher number of residents suffer from asthma, increased infant mortality rates and decreased life expectancies.

A study published in 2007 by William Bounds of ODU’s Department of Ocean, Earth, and Atmospheric Sciences and Karen Johannesson of Tulane University reveals some startling truths. Soil samples were collected in Norfolk to “examine the extent to which arsenic and coal are deposited into local soil.”

The weight of coal present in the soil ranges from under 1 to 20 percent. Total arsenic concentration in the soil ranged from 3 to 30.5 milligrams per kilogram of soil.

The 2007 study documented toxic coal dust contamination in Norfolk, stating that the Lambert’s Point terminal transfers “28+ million tons of coal annually from trains to ships, releasing about 50 tons/100,000 lbs of coal dust into the air each year”.

Residents complained of the black grit commonly coating cars, windowsills, and crops.  The study also showed that soil samples contained up to 20 percent coal by weight at a site 2.2 miles from the Lambert docks.

Each step in the process of coal transportation leaves its own hazardous footprint.  Companies move the coal in open-top rail cars and store them in piles, some of which sit idle for days, before they are dumped onto ships for exportation.  These rail cars– with the help of elemental winds– release what Morrison refers to as “fugitive coal dust”.

Harmful toxins such as arsenic, mercury and lead are also carried by wind and disperse across long distances.

According to Morrison coal dust contributes to heart and lung disease, asthma and cardio pulmonary diseases, decreased lung capacity, increased rates of childhood bronchitis, pneumonia and emphysema.

On the environmental side, the dust can contribute to haze and low visibility. It also poisons surface waters altering acidity of streams in large river basins and harming fish in large quantities.

Certain companies have “pollution permits” which allow them to pollute the environment to a certain extent. Morrison suggested that residents can push for stricter permit regulations.

She suggested that, coal companies have an interest in maintaining a good public image.

“A lot of this stuff makes sense; it’s just a matter of getting the coal companies and the regulatory agencies to take action on it,” Morrison said.

So far CCAN, along with the Sierra Club and others, have launched legal campaigns against the Export-Import Bank, the official export- credit agency of the U.S.  A lawsuit has been filed against the company for granting a $90 million loan to coal agencies, to support $1 billion in new coal exports.

The measure was taken without any environmental review.  As such, it is in major violation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) stipulations.   The act enforces all companies to examine what potential environmental impacts might occur when such action is taken.   The lawsuit is slowly moving forward, but, according to Leslie, a legal victory would send a positive message to the world.

By: David Baah

Staff Writer

  • Heather Von St. James


    I have a quick question for you, could you email me when you have a chance? Thanks! –Heather