Everyone in the neighborhoods near Norfolk Southern’s coal loading facilities has seen the coal dust. That dust gets on everything: our window sills, our window panes, our porches, our lawn chairs, our cars, and who knows how much of it is coating our roofs and permeating the soil in our yards?
We even drag that coal dust inside with us and get it on our carpets. So how does this happen? Obviously that dust is coming to us in the air, the same air that we breathe. But is coal dust really any big deal, other than the nuisance of having to clean it off things all the time? Do we really need to be concerned about breathing it?
Plumes of coal dust rising from one of Norfolk Southern’s rotary railcar dumpers in operation.
Even if coal dust were composed of pure coal, there would be health implications to breathing it. Pure coal is basically just carbon, but even elemental carbon has been shown to cause respiratory problems in young children.
But in addition to carbon, coal contains arsenic, lead, mercury, selenium, chromium, cadmium, and a slew of other heavy metals that can harm us, since they are known neurotoxins and carcinogens. And since the particles that compose coal dust are so small, they travel very readily into our lungs when we breathe them. In fact, many of these particles, the so-called PM 2.5 particles (2.5 microns or less in diameter), are so tiny that they pass through our lungs and into our bloodstreams, and from there enter every cell of our bodies.
Consider that an epidemiological study comparing towns that are located near sources of airborne coal dust with towns that are dust free found higher rates of low-birth-weigh babies, leukemia, and lung, colon, and bladder cancer where there was airborne coal dust.
Anyone who is exposed to dust blowing from uncovered piles of crushed or pulverized coal is especially at risk, said researcher Melissa Ahern of Washington State University. Unless precautions are taken, wind can whip coal dust from power plants, shipping facilities, trains, trucks or factories… Regular exposure to coal dust, she said, is “extremely dangerous.” [italics mine]
Google Earth image of Norfolk Southern’s coal loading facilities. All that coal can even be seen from space. Click for interactive map.
But the question, of course, is amount. Is there really enough coal dust in the air of Norfolk’s neighborhoods to harm their citizens? Well, nobody seems to know that for certain, but do we really want to depend on air monitors owned and operated by Norfolk Southern to assure us that the air we breathe is okay? We even have to ask ourselves if we want to depend on the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to protect us. After all, the VDEQ has now said that the methodology used by Norfolk Southern to collect air monitoring data over the past two decades was substandard, yet wasn’t this data part of the testing results that the VDEQ was using to give Norfolk Southern — if not the residents of the neighborhoods — a clean bill of health? So now we need yet another test that will take over a year, another test using air monitors owned and operated by Norfolk Southern.
Consider, too, that a study done by ODU researchers (“Arsenic Addition to Soils from Airborne Coal Dust Originating at a Major Shipping Terminal,” Bounds and Johannesson, 2007) has already found that soil sampled near Norfolk Southern’s coal loading facilities contained five times as much arsenic as other soils in the area. And all that extra arsenic came from the air, the same air that we breathe.
At this point, don’t we have enough information to answer the first part of the question, Is Norfolk Southern poisoning us? Doesn’t the strict answer to this question have to be yes? We know we’re breathing coal dust. We know that coal dust contains arsenic (along with all those other toxic things). And the simple definition of poison, the verb, is: to administer poison to a person or animal, either deliberately or accidentally. So yes, Norfolk Southern is poisoning us.
So now we have to consider, Why is Norfolk Southern poisoning us? Is it because in the process of hauling and dumping and loading coal onto ships, coal dust inevitably gets into the air and there is simply nothing that can be done about that? Well, the answer to this is an emphatic NO, because proven technologies exist to prevent the coal dust from getting into the air, and these technologies are being used by other companies to keep their dust emission in check.
So if such technologies are available and practical, yet Norfolk Southern Corporation refuses to employ them, we have to ask, Why in the world doesn’t Norfolk Southern stop letting that coal dust reach our neighborhoods? Is it because Norfolk Southern cannot afford these technologies?
Let’s look at just one of these proven technologies, an enclosure with a vacuum dust collecting system to stop coal dust from escaping from the dumpers. You can even see such a system in action here. Notice how clean it is, no dust escaping from the rotary railcar dumpers:
Now see what Norfolk Southern’s open-air dumpers look like in action. Notice how the lame water sprays that Norfolk Southern uses to keep the dust down plainly do not work. Note the clouds of dust billowing up into the air, then toward your neighborhood:
The estimated cost to Norfolk Southern to build one of these dust collecting enclosures for its dumpers is about $10 million. And since most of the coal dust seems to come from these dumpers, that $10 million would go a long way toward putting an end to the coal dust problem in our neighborhoods.
But $10 million is a lot of money, right? Of course it is. $10 million is a fortune to the average person. But what is $10 million to a Fortune 500 corporation like Norfolk Southern? Consider that Norfolk Southern’s annual revenues are over $11.6 BILLION, and of that, $2 BILLION a year is profit — for a whopping 17% profit margin. A monopoly class margin! No wonder Norfolk Southern can afford a $13.5 million annual compensation package for its CEO — in other words, paying just one of its top executives in a year more than it would cost to enclose those dumpers and stop a huge amount of that coal dust from reaching our neighborhoods.
If Norfolk Southern refuses to employ available technology to stop the coal dust from escaping from its dumpers, even though it could easily afford to, what are we to make of that? Seems to me the only conclusion has to be that Norfolk Southern just doesn’t want to give up that extra ½ of 1% of its profits, which is what that $10 million amounts to, even for only a single year. In other words, Norfolk Southern doesn’t want to see its profits drop for just one year from $2 billion to $1.995 billion.
While an epidemiological study of the effects of coal dust on the health of the residents of Norfolk’s neighborhoods has not been done, considering the effects of airborne coal dust on the health of people in the towns reported in the study cited previously, isn’t it likely that at least some people in Norfolk are being effected? Who knows how many of them might be getting cancer because of coal dust? Or how many might die prematurely because of it? So how many would it take to get Norfolk Southern to spend that $10 million?
Is the bottom line really more important to Norfolk Southern than polluting the neighborhoods and even the bodies of its neighbors? Do we have to answer that question that we started out with, Yes, Norfolk Southern is poisoning us for profits?