The journey begins in southwest Virginia, in the coalfields that once fed the region’s rural economy, as hundreds of empty train cars roll their way into mines. From there, loaded to the brim with over 100 tons of coal, the trains travel eastward, through Appalachia, through rural and urban communities, and miles of open land in between. Eventually, they arrive in Norfolk, Virginia, coming to rest at Norfolk Southern’s Pier 6, the largest coal export facility in the Northern Hemisphere.
For miles, those open-top train cars roll along uncovered, battered by the elements. The trains spew coal dust throughout their journey — as much as a ton or more per car, in fact. And while the dust settles everywhere along the route, its choking presence is perhaps most noticeable in the community in the shadow of Pier 6, where thousands of train cars converge before their coal is dumped onto ships bound primarily for overseas markets.
The neighborhood, known as Lambert’s Point, is surrounded by industry and separated from Pier 6 on the north end by a single street. From the homes of Lambert’s Point, the 400 acres of coal operations that comprise Pier 6 are largely out of sight, obscured by an old Norfolk Southern train that permanently blocks the view.
But while one parked train can obscure the sight of the coal operations, it can’t keep the coal itself from creeping into the neighborhood. It’s impossible to ignore the black soot on rooftops and awnings, on the sides of houses and on cars. And residents worry that if the dust shows up on their windows, or in their air filters, it’s also getting into their lungs.
“It’s in the house. It’s on our doors,” said Tracy Williams, a 34 year old who has lived in Lambert’s Point for seven years. She tells stories of seeing her 7-year-old son come in after playing outside, with dust around his mouth and nose “like a five o’clock shadow.” Williams has to change her air filter at least twice a month — any longer, and she can feel the dust in her home. Her mother has developed chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) since moving into the neighborhood.
Like other residents of Lambert’s Point, Williams is acutely aware of the coal dust, a soundless invader that makes its way into homes during the summer or on windy days. But what scares her more than the dust itself are the unknowns. Is her mother’s COPD from the dust, or something else? Does the dust around her son’s mouth contain the same toxic elements and heavy metals found in coal? Does the dust help explain why life expectancy here is five to 10 years shorter than surrounding neighborhoods? And, perhaps most pressing of all, why won’t anyone do anything about the problem, which has silently plagued the community for decades?
“We aren’t the first to fight this. There are people dying of different things from the coal dust everyday in this community,” Williams said. “When people don’t see the results year after year, I don’t think they forget about it; I just think they feel helpless, like there is no one to hear them.”
Lambert’s Point, a historically black community, has undergone changes in recent years, as an influx of students from nearby Old Dominion University has slowly shifted its demographics. Still, according to the most recent Census data, 34 percent of residents who live within the Zip code that includes Lambert’s Point are black, and the median household income is $51,267 — more than $16,000 below the state average.
“Every working class neighborhood has something that is fundamentally wrong and being covered up, because working class neighborhoods are usually considered last and the people that live there are considered the least.”
For years, residents have tried to draw attention to the dust that blankets their neighborhood. And for years, their pleas have largely been dismissed by both the company and local leaders. And so the residents of Lambert’s Point have been forced to make do, bringing their children inside on summer days instead of letting them play outdoors, keeping their windows firmly shut instead of letting air into their homes.
But while Lambert’s Point is unique in its proximity to the largest transloading coal facility in the Northern Hemisphere, its ongoing struggle is illustrative of so many communities across the country. Like hundreds of neighborhoods throughout the United States, its residents are fighting an uphill battle against a major corporation, threatened by weak federal standards, and left to fend for itself by politicians who gravitate toward business over public health. It’s a story about the failures of the American system that, at its worst, favors profits over people, especially the communities of color that bear a disproportionate amount of the burden of industrial pollution.
“We could have moved out of this neighborhood dozens of times, but we didn’t, because we care about this neighborhood. It’s very easy to move away and think that your problems are solved. But it follows you, because it’s so pervasive,” Anita Newsom, who has lived in Lambert’s Point for over two decades, said. “Every working class neighborhood has something that is fundamentally wrong and being covered up, because working class neighborhoods are usually considered last and the people that live there are considered the least.”
While its steady decline has gotten a lot of attention in recent years, coal is still one of the primary power sources in the United States, second only to natural gas. In 2015, the U.S. power sector consumed about 740 million tons of coal, and 70 percent of that coal was shipped to power plants via rail.
As a means of transporting fossil fuels, coal trains tend to attract less scrutiny than other methods. Unlike pipelines and oil trains, for instance, coal trains pose less of a catastrophic threat to the environment and surrounding communities — a derailment could send coal tumbling to the ground or, in a worst case scenario, into waterways, but immediate risks pale in comparison to an explosion or oil spill.
But while the risk of calamitous failure may be lower, coal trains have one major problem that bedevils neither pipelines nor oil trains: dust. As millions of tons of coal are loaded onto uncovered train cars and shipped across the country, coal trains leave a cloud of dust in their tracks.
It’s difficult to say exactly how much dust is emitted from a particular coal train, as it depends on a multitude of factors, from the train’s traveling speed to the type of coating, if any, the rail or shipping company applies to the coal before it is loaded and transported. Coal trains operated by Norfolk Southern have been treated by sealants, but it’s up to the mines to determine when that sealant is applied.
In a best case scenario, a 115-car coal train would emit 4,025 pounds of coal dust throughout its journey.
On average, trains carry about 100 to 120 tons of coal in each of the roughly 115 cars. The cars are left uncovered, ostensibly to prevent the coal from combusting. According to the BNSF Railway Company, which studied the release of coal dust from its rail cars over seven month period in 2010, as much as 500 pounds of coal dust can escape from a single car. The most effective chemical agent for suppressing coal dust cuts down on 93 percent of fugitive dust, meaning that in a best case scenario, a 115-car coal train would emit 4,025 pounds of coal dust throughout its journey.
Coal dust — like coal — contains toxic heavy metals such as mercury, lead, and arsenic. Some coal dust particles are microscopic, less than 2.5 microns across, meaning the particles are small enough to penetrate deep inside the lungs. In high concentrations, inhalation of coal dust has been linked to respiratory illnesses like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and emphysema.
One study of communities near mountaintop removal mining operations — often exposed to high levels of coal dust — found a link between coal dust and elevated cancer risk. Another study, which looked at school age children living near docks with coal operations in Liverpool, found that children exposed to coal dust were more likely to miss school due to respiratory problems than children with less exposure.
Residents of Lambert’s Point cite similar health problems when talking about the coal dust in their community. Sekou Newsom, who is 60 years old and has lived in Lambert’s Point for 27 years, points to the asthma attacks that started when he and his wife moved into their home just blocks from the coal pier and train tracks. Reverend Anthony Paige, pastor of First Baptist Church of Lambert’s Point, describes the deadly toll cancer has taken on his parishioners.
“I think that I have buried probably 300 people since I’ve been here,” Paige says of his 27 years in Lambert’s Point. “When I bury people, when I visit sick people, I see the effects.”
But there’s more than coal dust stifling the air around Lambert’s Point. Compounding the public health threat posed by the coal trains is the fact that most trains run on diesel engines, meaning that in urban areas like Norfolk — where trains tend to travel more slowly, and therefore may emit less dust — fumes from diesel cars can also exacerbate health problems like respiratory illness.
“There’s no doubt about it that at high levels, both of these things are bad,” Dan Jaffe, a University of Washington professor who has studied the health impacts of coal dust in the Pacific Northwest, said. “Both are going to cause respiratory issues, and diesel exhaust is also a carcinogen. But everything depends on how much — you can walk down the street and a diesel truck goes by and that’s not good, but if you’re breathing it every day or the trains are going by every day, that is a lot worse. The devil is in the details in terms of how much are people being exposed to in your community.”
For the residents of Lambert’s Point, there’s essentially no respite; the coal pier nearby operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In 2016, Norfolk Southern moved 9.46 million tons of coal through Pier 6 — a serious drop from its all-time high of 39.5 million tons, but still enough to make it the largest coal transloading facility in the Northern Hemisphere.
And as the trains and dumpers send coal dust and diesel fumes into the air, the toxins also find their way into the soil, where children play and residents garden. According to a study conducted in 2007 by two researchers at Old Dominion University, soil samples adjacent to the shipping terminal contained up to 20 percent coal by weight, and background levels of arsenic five times that of samples taken in other neighborhoods.
“We expected to see that the arsenic would be detectable and would be a component of the soil, but we didn’t expect that at least one sample close to the docks was, essentially, all from the coal dust,” Karen Johannesson, one of the researchers who now works as a professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Tulane, said.
Although unanswered questions and unaddressed concerns have plagued the community for years, their efforts to draw more attention to the coal dust and potential public health risks have seen little success.
“There has been a continuous cry, though ignored, over these past 27 years for something to be done about the coal dust issue and Norfolk Southern hasn’t budged,” Reverend Anthony Paige said. “It’s a silent killer, and often not visible, but you can look at the buildings, you can look at the side of people’s houses, you can look even on the streets and sidewalks. The coal dust is everywhere.”
The story of coal dust in Lambert’s Point goes back decades, before the construction of the neighborhood itself. In 1885, the first coal trains rumbled into the terminal at Lambert’s Point; shortly thereafter, homes began popping up around the terminal for workers and their families. By the turn of the 20th century, the coal transporting facilities were already handling more than two million tons of coal each year.
In 1961, Norfolk Southern — then known as Norfolk and Western — constructed Pier 6, a facility initially capable of handling a maximum capacity of 48 million tons of coal each year. But the construction of the pier predated the Clean Air Act by almost a decade — so when Congress passed the law requiring stricter national limits for air pollution, Pier 6 wasn’t subject to those requirements.
“It’s a silent killer, and often not visible, but you can look at the buildings, you can look at the side of people’s houses, you can look even on the streets and sidewalks. The coal dust is everywhere.”
“Their equipment that would cause the dust, when they dump the coal, was built in 1962, and the air regulations didn’t come in until about 1972,” John Brandt, regional air compliance and monitoring manager with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, said. “Unless they do something to trigger a need for a new air permit, we don’t have the regulatory ability to impose any controls on them.”
As the community around Lambert’s Point began to grow, Norfolk Southern took certain voluntary measures to reduce the amount of dust that was escaping from the pier and into the neighboring community — primarily, installing water sprays intended to limit the dust created when the coal dumpers flip the trains onto a conveyor belt. But the spraying mechanisms didn’t address the dust released before that step — when the uncovered trains rolled through the neighborhood, for instance — and it continued to accumulate on residents’ homes and cars.
“Even though the studies have conclusively shown no harm to the environment or human health, Norfolk Southern has taken great strides over the years to greatly minimize the dust from its operations. That includes installing a sprinkler system that sprays each coal car with water as it is dumped to conveyor belts at the pier,” Jonathan Glass, a spokesperson for Norfolk Southern, told ThinkProgress.
Nonetheless, mounting pressure from the community, and a campaign launched in 2015 by a local chapter of the Sierra Club, prompted the Virginia Departments of Environmental Quality and Health to study pollution levels in Lambert’s Point.
Working with Norfolk Southern, which agreed to pay for the cost of purchasing and installing air monitors, the agencies took measurements from two different sites: one located directly on the coal pier and another located on a municipal wastewater treatment facility directly across the street from the first row of houses in Lambert’s Point. Both monitors measured air pollution for a 24-hour period, every six days, over the course of a year.
The study looked only at particles of air pollution 10 microns or less in diameter — about one-fifth the width of a single piece of human hair. The average concentration of those particles was 14.46 micrograms per cubic meter for samples taken from the pier, and 17.58 micrograms per cubic meter for samples taken from the wastewater treatment plant. The highest values for each site were 31.29 micrograms per cubic meter and 40.21 per cubic meter. For comparison, EPA standards limit the concentration of particulate matter 10 microns or less in diameter at 150 micrograms per cubic meter within a 24-hour period, and 50 micrograms per cubic meter annually.
The measurements for Lambert’s Point were all well below the federal threshold, leading Dwight Flammia, the state’s public health toxicologist, to conclude that exposure to particulate pollution near Lambert’s Point was not expected to have an adverse impact on public health in the region.
“We’re all exposed to stuff in our daily lives that doesn’t affect us if we’re below a threshold,” Flammia told ThinkProgress. “That’s where we are with this particular matter.”
But for the residents of Lambert’s Point, the people who are exposed to the coal dust in their daily lives, learning that the study did not return levels of pollution in excess of federal standards was hardly a comfort — especially when they heard the air monitors used in the study had been paid for and installed by Norfolk Southern.
“I think the strategy that is used is biased to Norfolk Southern because it is saying to the fox, ‘Watch the henhouse,’” Paige said. “So Norfolk Southern is monitoring itself, and the empirical evidence is coming from Norfolk Southern.”
And while the study did find levels of particulate pollution below national standards, those standards don’t necessarily represent the most stringent pollution regulations. In the United States, environmental laws aren’t meant to completely prevent pollution; instead, landmark laws like the Clean Air Act merely regulate the amount of pollution that industry is allowed to send into the air. Oftentimes, those statutes don’t change alongside our understanding of the dangers of pollution. The limits for particulate pollution 10 microns or less in diameter haven’t been updated since 1987, for instance, despite an increase in scientific literature linking coarse pollution to adverse health impacts.
“Just because a site meets the National Ambient Air Quality Standards does not mean that the coal and diesel isn’t annoying, or doesn’t have health effects.”
Other regulatory and public health bodies have since proposed stricter standards for particulate pollution than the EPA: the World Health Organization, for instance, suggests that limits for particulate pollution 10 microns or less in diameter should be 20 micrograms per square meter on an annual basis, and 50 micrograms per square meter on a 24-hour basis. California adopted similarly stringent standards for its air pollution limits in 2002.
Under those standards, the pollution levels observed in the Lambert’s Point study — especially samples taken from the wastewater treatment plant, which is closer to the neighborhood — come much closer to exceeding limits.
“Just because a site meets the National Ambient Air Quality Standards does not mean that the coal and diesel isn’t annoying, or doesn’t have health effects,” the University of Washington’s Jaffe said.
Still, without the study returning values in excess of federal standards, Brandt said the Department of Environmental Quality was limited in what it could do to help the residents of Lambert’s Point. As far as he knows, Norfolk Southern is likely still operating the air monitors, but he isn’t sure — the department doesn’t have enough money to continue monitoring the situation. Without Norfolk Southern offering to pay for the monitors in the first place, he added, they wouldn’t have had enough money to even conduct the study.
“I’ve had complaints that what they perceive as coal dust ends up on their windowsills and on their houses, and I don’t have a good answer for them,” Brandt said. “They live in an industrial area and nuisance dust does occur, and I don’t have a regulatory basis to tell Norfolk Southern to do anything.”
With options for regulatory relief limited, residents of Lambert’s Point have turned to community organizing in an attempt to compel Norfolk Southern to take responsibility for the coal dust problem. Working with New Virginia Majority, a group that organizes for social, racial, and environmental justice throughout the state, community members have begun holding meetings and circulating petitions asking the CEO of Norfolk Southern, Bill Squires, to meet with Lambert’s Point residents.
Residents say they have one small request for the company: to cover its coal cars, so that when the trains rumble through the community, the dust is minimized. According to Sierra Club figures, the estimated cost of those preventative measures would amount to 1 percent of Norfolk Southern’s $11 billion gross annual revenue. But they say their requests for a meeting have continually been ignored.
Norfolk Southern, for its part, says it met with concerned residents in 2014 and has responded to subsequent issues raised by the community in two letters sent in May and July of 2017.
Residents living near Pier 6 understand, perhaps better than anyone in Norfolk, the deep and complex role the company plays in the city. But they also point to Norfolk Southern’s commitment to be a “responsible corporate neighbor at Lambert’s Point” — and argue that the company isn’t living up to their end of the bargain.
“We’re not asking Norfolk Southern to leave,” Tracy Williams said. “They’ve been there 30 or 40 years, the community was built around them. But we are asking them to cover their cars, and that seems like a small price to pay.”
In an attempt to compel Norfolk Southern to cover its coal cars, organizers and community residents have tried appealing to politicians and local leaders, from civic leagues to the state legislature. But the company is an incredibly powerful force, both in Norfolk and the state as a whole. It’s the only Fortune 500 company headquartered in Norfolk, and it gives millions of dollars to the community each year in charitable contributions. Over the last five years, Norfolk Southern has given $190,000 to Chesapeake Bay Foundation, $170,000 to Elizabeth River Project, and $175,000 to Nature Conservancy — all local environmental organizations that have yet to do any work on the coal dust issue. It has also given $180,000 to Old Dominion University, which Reverend Paige says makes the institution less willing to investigate the public health and environmental damages from coal dust.
The company also makes hefty contributions to candidates running for statewide and local offices; overall, Norfolk Southern has given more than $1 million in political contributions to Virginia statewide campaigns since 1996. Jerrauld Jones, a Democrat who represented Lambert’s Point in the Virginia House of Delegates, received $1,500 from Norfolk Southern over the course of his career (Jones’ son Jay Jones, who now represents Norfolk in the assembly, has not taken any money from Norfolk Southern). Lynwood Lewis, a Democrat who has represented Lambert’s Point in the Virginia State Senate since 2014, has accepted more than $17,000 over the course of his career from Norfolk Southern and its top executives.
According to Sierra Club figures, the estimated cost of preventative measures would amount to 1 percent of Norfolk Southern’s $11 billion gross annual revenue.
All that money makes it difficult for residents in Lambert’s Point to find allies in the Virginia state legislature. During the most recent legislative session, three Virginia legislators introduced a bill that would have required Norfolk Southern — among other companies — to report coal dust data on an annual basis to the assembly. The bill died in committee, and Norfolk Southern agreed to meet with stakeholders affected by coal dust instead. But activists say that meeting still hasn’t taken place.
Norfolk Southern’s political power is evident beyond the general assembly. Joe Cook, a local organizer who leads the Virginia Sierra Club’s coal dust campaign, tells a story about asking a local Democratic politician to sign a petition calling on Norfolk Southern to cover its train cars years back. The politician said no, according to Cook, because he was planning to run for governor one day and needed Norfolk Southern’s financial contributions.
The politician Cook described is now Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who has received over $150,000 in campaign donations from Norfolk Southern and its top executives throughout his career. A spokesperson for Northam did not respond to questions about the governor’s relationship with Norfolk Southern and plans for Lambert’s Point, and instead referred ThinkProgress to a pledge made during the campaign to create a task force to address environmental justice concerns in vulnerable communities.
But residents of Lambert’s Point remain skeptical that any politician, much less the governor, will risk upsetting Norfolk Southern over the coal dust concerns.
“I’m disappointed in our local and state officials, who seem to be more concerned about maintaining a Fortune 500 company than the health of its citizens who are dying from coal dust emissions from the coal cars that run through this and several other communities daily,” Paige said. “From top to bottom, Norfolk Southern is treated as a golden child. They won’t touch it.”
As local and state politicians shy away from confrontations with Norfolk Southern, it’s unlikely Lambert’s Point residents will get any help from the current federal government either. The Trump administration has proposed cutting the EPA’s environmental justice program, which during the Obama administration, sought to help vulnerable communities struggling with environmental pollution. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has also begun the process of repealing Clean Power Plan, which would have placed limits on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and potentially hastened the transition from coal to other sources of energy, like natural gas or renewable energy.
Coupled with a bump in coal exports, the administration’s pro-fossil fuel agenda could mean more coal-laden trains rumbling through Lambert’s Point each day.
But even before the Trump took office, obtaining meaningful assistance from the EPA would have been a long shot. Environmental justice grants awarded by the agency can help communities remediate pollution or fund community education programs, but do little to actually curb industrial pollution. The agency’s Office of Civil Rights is charged with investigating environmental racism claims, but a 2015 investigation from the Center for Public Integrity found that it has been “chronically unresponsive” to complaints. In the office’s 22-year history, it has never once made a formal finding of a civil rights violation.
“We just did what we always did, we problem-solved. We changed our habits because we can’t change the air pollution.”
“The EPA is so negligent, so political, so slow, until by the time they enact something, half of the people in this city will be dead,” Paige said.
That leaves residents of Lambert’s Point with few options. Some, like Anita and Sekou Newsom, have changed their lifestyle completely to try to mitigate the worst impacts of the dust — they rarely open their windows or sit outside, only daring to do so in the early morning hours or directly after a rain.
“We just did what we always did, we problem-solved,” Anita says with a shrug. “We changed our habits because we can’t change the air pollution.”
Most residents in Lambert’s Point maintain hope that Norfolk Southern will at least meet with them, to hear their demands and consider covering their coal trains. But some, like Paige, are mulling another idea: litigation. If Norfolk Southern won’t take steps to cover the coal trains on their own, he says, then legal action may be the only path forward.
“I think legal action is long overdue, because it is very clear that Norfolk Southern has no intentions of doing anything about this,” Paige said. “Sometimes you have to take folks to court, and I really think this issue is going to end up in court because Norfolk Southern is so arrogant.”
There is some favorable precedent for legal action against rail companies and coal dust. In 2010, the state of Alaska — along with local environmental groups — sued the Alaska Railroad and an energy company in Seward, Alaska, for pollution related to coal dust. In 2015, the groups reached a settlement requiring the energy company to re-apply for an individual operating permit related to coal dust discharge; that permit placed much stricter limits on the amount of coal dust the facility could legally discharge.
“People are dying. This is not some theoretical, political thing that we are involved in. This is a matter of life and death.”
Further south, environmental groups in Washington state brought a lawsuit against BNSF Railway for its coal dust problems, alleging that the coal dust discharged by the company’s trains was a violation of the Clean Water Act. BNSF settled that lawsuit in 2017 by agreeing to fund $1 million in environmental projects and to study physical covers for its coal cars.
But legal action is a lengthy and often contentious process. In Alaska, environmental groups had the support of the state in their lawsuit, something the resident’s of Lambert’s Point have struggled to obtain. In Washington, the lawsuit centered on violations under the Clean Water Act for places along the railroad where the company did not have permits to discharge pollutants. Norfolk Southern has those permits for Pier 6, and isn’t subject to regulation under the Clean Air Act, limiting the path for citizen lawsuits. And Norfolk Southern is a powerful entity within the larger Norfolk community, viewed by many as a crucial supplier of jobs for the area.
Organizers, like the Sierra Club and New Virginia Majority, have a few ideas for mobilizing change in the neighborhood, from community education campaigns to public protests against Norfolk Southern. They’ve papered the neighborhood with fliers featuring Norfolk Southern CEO James Squires peeking out of a coal car, with the words “Have You Seen James Squires?” in bold letters across the top. They hope that with enough public pressure, Squires will agree to meet with them and hear their case for covering the coal cars. They also hope new leadership in Richmond will hear their story and do something to help control the dust.
But until that happens, residents will continue to go about their daily lives in the shadow of Pier 6, changing their air filters and washing their cars and hoping that the dust outside doesn’t come for their family next.
“People are dying,” Reverend Paige said. “This is not some theoretical, political thing that we are involved in. This is a matter of life and death.”
Update: A previous version of this article stated that Virginia Delegate Jay Jones has received $1,500 in contributions from Norfolk Southern. Jones has received no money from the company; his father, Jerrauld, who represented Lambert’s Point for 14 years, received $1,500 in contributions. ThinkProgress regrets the error.