Virginia will begin monitoring air pollution around Hampton Roads coal terminals

A coal terminal adjacent to Newport News’ Southeast Community has been the source of air...
A coal terminal adjacent to Newport News’ Southeast Community has been the source of air pollution complaints for decades. Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality is now setting up an air monitoring program.(Sarah Vogelsong (Virginia Mercury))
Published: Apr. 20, 2022 at 7:42 AM EDT
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The southernmost tip of Newport News, where the James River makes its last turn before meeting the Chesapeake Bay, is never still.

This is a place of coming and going. Every year, millions of short tons of coal flow by train into yards owned by Kinder Morgan and Dominion Terminal Associates and then leave by ship to head overseas. Just adjacent, vessels at Newport News Shipbuilding bound for the U.S. Navy and other buyers are perpetually rising above the waters. And through it all winds Interstate 664, one of just three arteries to cross the miles of water that divide the city from Norfolk.

At the center of this vortex sits the Southeast Community, a low-income, largely Black neighborhood where residents have for decades been complaining of heavy air pollution that darkens their homes and sickens people.

“Our community is saturated with particulate matter because of all the things that have happened around us,” said Newport News Vice Mayor Saundra Nelson Cherry.

This year, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality is beginning a three-year study to put some numbers to what’s in the air in Newport News’ East End and another low-income, majority-Black area in Norfolk named for the Lambert’s Point coal terminal operated by Norfolk Southern there.

“We’ll be able to know what the concentrations are across the area of the community to a better degree than we have in the past, and we’ll know if there are any areas that maybe have issues that need to be addressed,” DEQ air quality manager Charles Turner told residents at a community meeting earlier this month.

DEQ is touting the Tidewater Area Monitoring and Evaluation project as a step toward addressing what officials acknowledge has been a long-standing concern.

Particularly valuable, they say, will be the installation of five air monitors as well as a variety of sensors that will measure levels of particulate matter and various toxic metals in the region’s air.

But while residents say they are pleased Virginia is finally conducting comprehensive air monitoring, many remain openly skeptical that the study, which is being funded by a $526,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, will lead to real change.

“They keep on doing comprehensive studies and that’s all they do,” said Ernest Thompson, a resident who grew up in the Southeast Community and then returned as an adult in 2000.


.(Virginia Mercury)

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.

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