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Coal dust has long plagued Norfolk, Newport News. With new $500K grant, Virginia plans to study what’s in the air.

by Katherine Hafner/The Virginian Pilot 

Residents of Norfolk’s Lamberts Point and the Southeast Community in Newport News have long complained that coal dust seeps into their neighborhoods, coating cars and potentially impacting people’s health.

For the first time on a large scale, Virginia officials now plan to study exactly which and how many toxins are in the air.

The state Department of Environmental Quality received a $526,603 grant this week from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The project will include monitoring air toxics metals for a year and conducting health risk assessments in the two communities.

Chuck Turner, the department’s manager of air quality monitoring, said the opportunity to apply for the grant came up in March. Though officials had several projects in mind, “this one stood out because there has been a long history of both communities having concerns about coal dust and how they’re impacted by it.”

Norfolk Southern had done some monitoring of its own in Lamberts Point that Virginia officials say showed no concerning results. However, it didn’t measure on as wide of a scale.

“There’s been no movement until now on getting a handle on the toxics metals content,” Turner said.

DEQ plans to set up primarily a type of monitor measuring air particles thinner than a human hair, that can be found in coal dust and inhaled by people. (The particles are known as PM10, for matter with a diameter of less than 10 microns.) They’ll look for toxics metals including nickel, arsenic, lead and more.

Officials will also use a second kind of monitor that deals with larger particles that can come out of construction sites or off roads, Turner said.

The EPA only granted money for a year of monitoring — DEQ sought a longer period — but the state hopes to continue on its own afterward. They’d use air sensors that are not as precise but easier to maintain, Turner said.

What could matter most to the people who live in these communities is this: DEQ scientists plan to work with the Virginia Department of Health to look into how pollutants have affected residents' risk of developing cancer or respiratory issues.

If those risks are concluded to be less than one in a million, Turner said, the EPA doesn’t require further study.

The department is also planning to use the grant money to do outreach in the community.

Lafeetah Byrum, a Norfolk-based climate justice organizer for the New Virginia Majority nonprofit, said in an email to The Pilot she was glad to hear about the new grant money.

“As this moves forward, it will be important to ensure transparency of data and a process that does not rely solely on self-reporting but instead one that centers the community collaboratively," she wrote.

In 2017, Byrum and a small group organized by the nonprofit had protested outside a Norfolk Southern shareholder meeting, holding signs that read, for example, “Do Black Lives Matter? Cover the Coal.”

Charles Corbett, a resident of Lambert’s Point who has advocated on behalf of the neighborhood, told The Pilot this week he would like to see an independent organization do monitoring in Lamberts Point. He said he doesn’t trust the state or Norfolk Southern to do so, after years without help on the issue.

Corbett said he had a bronchitis attack a couple years ago and his mucus "tasted like coal dust.” The racking cough shook his whole body and his doctor at the Veterans Affairs hospital told him to start wearing a mask outside, he said.

Residents of the Southeast Community in Newport News have a similarly long history with coal dust.

A 2005 Peninsula Health District study showed that residents there experienced asthma rates more than twice the city and statewide averages, according to the Daily Press. Wind picks up the dust in the piles off of Terminal Avenue, the newspaper reported, which ends up floating over Interstate 664 and coating neighborhoods in the community, particularly those closest to the coal piers.

Ann Creasy, conservation program manager for the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter, said the pollution disproportionately affects low income, Black and brown communities such as Lamberts Point and Southeast.

That makes residents at an even higher risk for dying of COVID-19 and "all the multiplying impacts that can lead to.

“I do think it’s overdue the government is interested in providing funding to study this issue,” Creasy said. “Hopefully the data can allow for progress.”

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