On May 18, 2015, I went to the regional office of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to ask some questions about all the coal dust I’ve been seeing (and photographing and videoing) coming from Norfolk Southern’s remarkably efficient, howbeit appallingly polluting, massive 40’ tall twin tandem rotary rail-car dumpers.
I mean, each of these monsters can flip two fully loaded coal cars at a time, dumping 240 tons of coal in seconds. And they do this over and over again, often only taking about two to three minutes to load up with two new cars and repeat the process. And obviously, with so much coal crashing into the bins below, lots of coal dust gets kicked up into the air.
Now the DEQ is the state agency that, according to its mission statement, “protects and enhances Virginia’s environment, and promotes the health and well-being of the citizens of the Commonwealth.” But the curious thing is that during the past 15 years, the DEQ has only inspected Norfolk Southern’s big polluting dumpers 6 times. That’s an average of once in every 2.5 years! And of those 6 inspections, only during one of them (in 2006) did the DEQ inspector claim to notice too much dust escaping from the dumpers, and then only on every 4th or 5th dump.
I call all this curious because, in just the past few months, I — an ordinary citizen who lives in one of the neighborhoods that the dust from these dumpers rains down on — have observed these dumpers many more times in operation than the DEQ (the state agency charged with protecting our environment and us) has in those 15 years, and every time I have seen those dumpers belching coal dust into the air. Now since these dumper/polluters happen to be located right in the heart of Hampton Roads, several residential neighborhoods, as well as the waters of the Elizabeth River, are the recipients of the toxic coal dust pollution that billows from them.
The Video Proof: 5 Dirty Dumps in 15 Minutes
To prove that these dumpers are doing serious air polluting, and doing it repeatedly, I shot more videos just a few days ago and put them on YouTube. All these videos, taken just minutes apart, show plumes of coal dust rising into the air from the dumpers, and on successive dumps, not merely every 4th or 5th dump as a DEQ inspector once reported:
Problems with coal dust pollution from Norfolk Southern’s dumpers are nothing new. Last year Virginian-Pilot reporter Aaron Applegate wrote about the history of these problems. It seems that during the 1990s, DEQ inspectors noticed too much dust pouring out of the dumpers four times — since two DEQ inspectors only bothered to inspect the dumpers every few years or so. But back then the DEQ would even issue citations to Norfolk Southern for emitting too much coal dust into the air. The DEQ would even ask Norfolk Southern to do a better job of containing the dust. However, for the past 15 years, since 2000, the DEQ has pretty much given Norfolk Southern a clean bill of health.
At my meeting with the DEQ, the regional director told me she once watched the dumpers in action with binoculars from atop one of Norfolk Southern’s buildings, and for an hour or so she did not see any coal dust escaping from them. No visible dust at all? Well, I was glad to hear that, because if true, it means that Norfolk Southern’s water spray system is indeed capable of containing the coal dust to the point that no visible dust escapes it. But the fact is, I have never witnessed that myself. What I have witnessed, time and again, is the kind of thing you can plainly see in the videos above.
If the water spray system is fully capable of preventing visible coal dust plumes from escaping the dumpers (as the regional director of the DEQ claims she observed), yet such plumes repeatedly rise from the dumpers, this is clear evidence that Norfolk Southern’s water spray system is repeatedly malfunctioning, and Norfolk Southern (which is in a position to see those dust plumes better than I or anyone else can) is repeatedly and brazenly allowing its water spray system to malfunction without fixing it. This is also clear evidence that the DEQ, because it inspects the dumpers so incredibly infrequently, is either negligently or willfully allowing blatant polluting to go on with impunity.
The DEQ’s Current Dedication — Or Lack Thereof
On April 28th, the regional director of the DEQ briefed the Norfolk City Council on the coal dust situation and said the following about how the DEQ handles coal dust complaints by citizens: “Once we have a complaint, it depends on the complaint. If it’s a complaint that says I just saw a bunch of dust going up, there’s a large plume, something of that nature, we will contact the facility or we will go out and inspect and see exactly what has happened. If we have a complaint, someone says I have a lot of dust on my window sill, it’s very difficult for us to go out and do something about it at that point. So if we’re contacted very close to an incident or during an incident, we’re able to definitively address that, and that’s our normal procedure, to go out and address it.”
Yet when I reported what I saw in my latest videos to the DEQ — videos that show egregious, repeated polluting — and even reported it to the DEQ during an ongoing incident, the regional director emailed me, “Please be aware that DEQ’s response to this and similar complaints that may be forwarded in the future is to obtain valid air monitoring data for review by the Health Department. At this time, I do not propose that DEQ will follow up with a site visit or contact the facility.” In other words, now the DEQ does not even want to see the polluting for itself, and it will not bother to trouble Norfolk Southern about it!
A coal dust plume rises from the rotary dumpers,
The plan for this “valid air monitoring data” that the regional director of the DEQ spoke of his position to air monitors approximately one mile away from the dumpers. These air monitors will collect their particulate count data on every sixth day. Even though these monitors will be owned and operated by Norfolk Southern (the company doing the polluting), and even though the data to determine how much polluting Norfolk Southern is doing will be collected by Norfolk Southern, the DEQ people assured me that no hanky-panky will be possible and that the DEQ will be evaluating good data. Getting the study going and collecting the data will take over a year. Evaluating the data will then take several months more. In the meantime, the agency charged with protecting our environment seems to be saying, No need to complain about that dust any longer. We’re doing a study.
But I still have a glance over at Norfolk Southern’s coal loading operations each day that a ship is being loaded. And each of those days I see dust plumes rising from the dumpers, so I still file a new complaint here.
In seven days just prior to writing this, I have seen coal dust plumes each of those days and filed seven complaints. When Norfolk Southern is loading ship, it typically only takes about five minutes of watching before I spot coal dust plumes, then another five minutes to make an online complaint.
Why Can’t the DEQ Make Norfolk Southern Stop Its Polluting Now?
Here is the Virginia Fugitive Dust Regulation that applies to Norfolk Southern’s Pier 6 dumping and loading equipment, even though this 50+ year-old facility, which was built in 1962, has been grandfathered and is exempt from the federal Clean Air Act:
“No owner or other person shall cause or permit any materials or property to be handled, transported, stored, used, constructed, altered, repaired or demolished without taking reasonable precautions to prevent particulate matter from becoming airborne. Such reasonable precautions may include, but are not limited to, the following: Open equipment for conveying or transporting materials likely to create objectionable air pollution when airborne shall be covered or treated in an equally effective manner at all times when in motion.”
Fugitive Dust Emissions (9 VAC 5-40-90). So why isn’t this simple regulation enough to make Norfolk Southern stop polluting now?
Why Monitor So Infrequently and from a Mile Away?
Considering the language of this regulation, does it make sense to monitor air pollution “likely to create objectionable air pollution” coming from Norfolk Southern’s dumpers at a distance of a mile from those dumpers, and to monitor that pollution on only one day out of six? Yet even this is an improvement over what the DEQ was doing before. For years now the DEQ has been relying on air data collected from a single monitor located about two miles up the Elizabeth River from the dumpers, the source of most of the pollution.
But the applicable Fugitive Dust Regulation talks about preventing particulate matter from becoming airborne. There is nothing in the regulation about preventing only matter from becoming airborne that then travels for a mile, or for any other arbitrary distance. And there’s nothing that says only the airborne matter emitted on every sixth day is of concern.
Yet these are the criteria the DEQ plans to use in its upcoming new air study! Would not the best way to determine if particulate matter from the dumpers is becoming airborne be to actually sample the coal dust coming directly from the dumpers, namely to collect it as it rises out of them, rather than depend on distant air monitors that (due to the fluctuating direction of the winds) will not even be downwind from the dumpers much of the time — and will only be collecting data every sixth day?
Why not simply mount the monitor atop the dumpers? Why not collect air pollution data every day? Why not even post the real-time particulate count from these monitors online for the public to see, since the technology to do so is readily available?
After all, according to the DEQ’s mission statement: “We provide clear, accurate, and timely information and evaluation” and “We exchange information freely.”
Since coal dust plumes from the dumpers can plainly be seen, why not also aim a camera at those dumpers? If the Virginia Department of Transportation can monitor roads with cameras, why can’t the DEQ do that with Norfolk Southern’s coal dust belching dumpers? And why not put the pictures online in real-time 24/7 for the public to see, just like VDOT lets the public see traffic on the roads?
As for taking “reasonable precautions to prevent particulate matter from becoming airborne,” any precaution that allows visible plumes of particulate matter to rise into the sky and get carried off by the wind is not a reasonable precaution — at least, not to anyone with a smidgeon of common sense. Even if that so-called reasonable precaution is considered an industry standard, as apparently water sprays for keeping down coal dust are, if it does not work, it is simply not a reasonable option.
Besides, the regional director of the DEQ said herself that she had observed Norfolk Southern’s dumpers operating for over an hour without emitting any visible coal dust, so does it not make perfect sense to expect Norfolk Southern’s “reasonable precautions” to live up to that standard — namely, no visible plumes of coal dust? Yet look at those videos again, at how visible those plumes of dust are.
If Norfolk Southern’s water sprays often and repeatedly do not keep visible coal dust plumes from emerging from its dumpers, either the spray system is inherently ineffective or Norfolk Southern does not utilize or maintain it properly. Either way, the water sprays cannot be considered reasonable precautions since they do not work. And water sprays, for whatever reason they are not working, can hardly be equally as effective as covering the dumpers, which is the reasonable precaution suggested by the Fugitive Dust Regulation for equipment such as the dumpers.
“Reasonable” or “Cheap and Dirty”?
But corporations don’t necessarily look at what is “reasonable” the way ordinary, common-sensible citizens look at it. With corporations, things are usually all about the bottom line. What is reasonable is what is profitable. The tacit argument seems to be that Norfolk Southern cannot be expected to shell out good money on something as insignificant as coal dust, and certainly not unless the coal dust polluting can be proven to actually be harming people. Both Norfolk Southern (the polluter) and the DEQ (the regulators) seem to ascribe to this argument.
Forget about coal dust being grimy and an ongoing nuisance and just plain (per the wording of the regulation) objectionable. Norfolk Southern will not pay just to save residents of the neighborhoods the inconveniences of coal dust, inconveniences that the cynically inclined might say those residents should have gotten used to living with long before now.
Besides, according to Norfolk Southern, it simply cannot afford to do what is needed to stop the coal dust — remember, the bottom line? But before you buy into that whopper, take a glance at Norfolk Southern’s annual earning reports. Along with all that coal that it hauls, Norfolk’s hometown Fortune 500 corporation has been hauling in tons of cash for itself too. Revenues over $11 billion, profits in the billions, monopoly-class double-digit profit margins! See the annual reports for yourself.
Chump change for Norfolk Southern.
Objectionable Is Enough!
The DEQ’s upcoming new air monitoring study that will take one to two years to complete and that is supposed to determine the amount of coal dust in the air and whether it is a health hazard is not even necessary. The Fugitive Dust Regulations plainly mandate preventing “materials likely to create objectionable air pollution when airborne” from becoming airborne. The regulation does not require that these materials be health hazards. If health hazards were the one-and-only concern of the regulation, why would it use the broader and more subjective word objectionable?
adjective: arousing distaste or opposition; unpleasant or offensive; as in, I find the coal dust all over my property objectionable.
Since coal dust contains a slew of proven neurotoxins and carcinogens, and since scientific studies have implicated airborne coal dust in a number of diseases and ailments, there are plenty of reasons to believe that coal dust is not a healthy thing to breathe. And it is not only coal miners who suffer adverse health effects from breathing coal dust. Epidemiological studies have shown that people living near a coal dust source, people who are only exposed to coal dust blown by the winds, can experience a slew of health problems, including assorted cancers. For example, see the 2014 annual report. Breathing any coal dust at all is not healthy. All that Norfolk Southern and the DEQ can be quibbling about is the amount of coal dust in the air, and just how unhealthy it is.
But according to the wording of the Fugitive Dust Regulations, the healthy-or-not question is beside the point. Coal dust only has to be “likely to create objectionable air pollution” to require that it be prevented from becoming airborne.
So why not poll the residents of the coal dust-affected neighborhoods? Ask them if they consider coal dust objectionable and if they would like to end of it in their neighborhoods. See what they have to say?
A couple month’s worth of coal dust mopped from a West Ghent window pane. Objectionable enough?
The Duke Power Parallel
On May 24, 2015, the Virginian-Pilot editorialized about how Duke Power polluted our drinking water when it allowed 39,000 tons of coal ash to get into the Dan River upstream from Lake Gaston.
The Pilot pointed out how North Carolina officials (where the toxic spill occurred) initially minimized the danger and how the disaster could have been entirely avoided if Duke Power would have taken sensible, and relatively inexpensive, precautions, but “the company could refuse such sensible precautions because there was little risk that state regulators would hold it accountable.” It took a federal judge to put Duke Power on probation for five years and charge it $102 million in fines and other fees.
Consider the ways that Duke Power’s polluting is similar to Norfolk Southern’s:
Coal dust contains the same dangerous heavy metal neurotoxins and carcinogens that are found in coal ash.
While Duke Power fouled our drinking water with these toxins, Norfolk Southern fouls the air we breathe with the same toxins.
Both Duke Power and Norfolk Southern could take precautions to further limit their polluting, precautions even recommended by their own employees and/or studies, but both corporations chose not to.
As for similarities between the environmental regulators of Virginia and North Carolina, consider that the director of Virginia’s DEQ recently lobbied Congress to weaken new EPA coal ash standards, which are already too weak.
Is it a fair comparison?
How does that 39,000 tons of coal ash that Duke Power released into the Dan River compare to Norfolk Southern’s coal dust polluting?
The DEQ has estimated that approximately 90,000 pounds, or 45 tons, of coal dust blows off of Norfolk Southern’s coal loading facilities per year, but then, DEQ inspectors have also claimed that they rarely see coal dust plumes rising from Norfolk Southern’s dumpers. Even if we were to accept the DEQ’s questionably low estimate (considering all the coal dust that anyone else can readily see blowing from those dumpers), we also have to factor in other Norfolk Southern sources of airborne coal dust before we absolve Norfolk Southern of serious polluting.
It has been estimated that roughly one pound of coal dust blows off of uncovered coal cars per mile of track traveled, and this estimate may be much too low:
Read a coal industry analysis of coal dust blowing off of railcars.
One railroad admits to how much coal can blow off railcars.
Nevertheless, Norfolk Southern has refused to cover its coal cars, just as it has refused to enclose its dumpers. This estimated average rate of dust that blows off of moving coal cars is one reason why the DEQ’s estimate of only 45 tons blowing off Norfolk Southern’s Lamberts Point terminal seems unreasonably low. That terminal is roughly a mile long and contains 62 miles of track. It can store as many as 6,200 coal cars waiting to be dumped at a time.
Lately Norfolk Southern has been hauling about 20 million tons of coal per year (for many years that figure has been much higher). But even only 20 million tons per year amounts to about 170,000 railcar loads. So 170,000 pounds of coal dust per year could blow off of those loaded coal cars as they travel the one mile across Norfolk Southern’s terminal. And how much more coal dust would blow off those fully loaded cars as they sit for days on the storage tracks waiting to be dumped? I have witnessed a stiff breeze whipping a considerable amount of coal dust off the cars as they were being hauled up to the dumpers.
So consider how much coal dust polluting Norfolk Southern does as it hauls all those fully loaded coal cars roughly 300 miles across Virginia, all the way from the coal mines of Appalachia to the Port of Norfolk. At the estimated rate of one pound of coal dust blown off a car per mile, hauling 20-40 million tons a year could mean 25,000-50,000 tons of airborne coal dust per year — year after year after year!