Why Black Communities are Resisting Coal Pollution in Norfolk

The predominantly Black community of Lamberts Point in Norfolk is blanketed by up to 50,000 pounds of coal dust from rail cars transporting coal at Norfolk Southern Corp.’s facility every year. 

It covers cars, windows, playgrounds and is in every breath the community takes. The dust forces some families to changes their air filters and pressure wash their houses every week. Many parents limit their children’s time playing outside out of fear that the coal dust will impact their young lungs.

Parents of one six-year-old Amari Muhammad are in the emergency room regularly for his asthma attacks, which doctors say are linked directly to the pollution in Lamberts Point.  Coal dust is not a harmless concoction. Its contents include lead, arsenic, mercury and other heavy metals. Coal dust is linked to low birth rate, neurodevelopmental delays in children, lung cancer, pneumonia, emphysema, bronchitis, asthma, heart disease, strokes and premature death.

There is an easy fix to this problem. The people of Lamberts Point don’t have to be subjected to Norfolk Southern’s toxic coal dust every day. Norfolk’s one and only Fortune 500 company could simply cover the rail cars to prevent the dust from escaping, but the company, led by its CEO James Squires, has refused to do so, claiming it’s too expensive.

Lamberts Point residents and members of New Virginia Majority recently launched a campaign calling for Squires to meet with the community to discuss the problem and come up with solutions. We have written him letters, gathered outside of Norfolk Southern’s annual shareholders’ meeting, and posted flyers all over the city to get his attention -- all to no avail.

Environmental injustice is not foreign to communities of color. Race is the single biggest factor that determines whether you live near a hazardous waste facility. Hundreds of communities of color like Lamberts Point disproportionately experience pollution from toxic air and water as a result of living near toxic waste sites, landfills, and congested highways. Last year, we saw how the lead poisoning crisis in Flint, Michigan, largely affected low-income Black communities while sparing middle-class white communities.

Despite spurring national attention, these kind of easily preventable atrocities continue to happen across the country. One key public institution, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), can stand in the way of future environmental hazards by enforcing standards on the local level.

Over the last few decades, the EPA’s enforcement of bedrock environmental laws like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act has dramatically improved the air we breathe and our drinking water. In Virginia, it funds programs to protect and restore the Chesapeake Bay and the Elizabeth River Project, which works to “reduce environmental impacts, understand risks and become stewards of their own environment.”

Yet, the EPA is in danger of losing more half a billion dollars from its budget if a bill proposed by the House appropriations committee over the summer is signed into law. The cuts would decimate several state-level programs that protect local watershed ecosystems as well as the EPA’s lead risk reduction program. It would impact funding for the superfund cleanup sites and severely limit the agency’s enforcement and research ability.

We need an empowered EPA, not a weakened one, that will stand up to local polluters like Norfolk Southern, which perpetually denies that their toxic dust has any negative impacts on the health and well-being of our community.

The EPA budget cuts will jeopardize water and air quality and safety, not just for Lamberts Point, but for our entire region. A weakened EPA would further exacerbate the alarming threats of global warming, and most tragically, put our health and lives at risk – all in the interest of wealthy corporations.

This disastrous budget won’t pass if members of Congress wake up to the damage it will do in their states and vote it down. We call on James Squires to rise to the challenge of basic corporate responsibility and stewardship and stop hiding from his neighbors - or at least return their calls. We also call on Virginia’s Senators and House representatives to resist efforts to eviscerate the EPA budget. Weakening the EPA and their power to enforce regulations leaves the door wide open to big polluters like Norfolk Southern to double down on their toxic practices and disregard our health for profit.

Lafeetah Byrum is a climate justice organizer at New Virginia Majority, an affiliate of the Center for Popular Democracy


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