PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — Ever noticed the haze that accompanies coal trains? Several environmental and public health organizations say you’re not alone.

Last week, the Sierra Club lead an effort to file a petition with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, for a new rule that they said will “stop harmful coal pollution from open-top trains carrying coal.”

If the petition is successful, railroads would be required to obtain a permit for the “water pollution” the advocacy groups said is caused by the uncovered hoppers.

“Under the Clean Water Act, EPA has the authority to regulate pollution from point sources, including open-top railcars,” the release from the Sierra Club reads. “Today’s filed petition presents evidence that harmful coal pollution can escape from open-top coal trains in transit, polluting the surrounding communities, air and water with heavy metals and toxic chemicals including arsenic, cadmium, chromium and mercury.”

Coal mine dust can cause a spectrum of lung diseases, collectively termed “coal mine dust lung disease,” or CMDLD, according to the National Institutes of Health. Inhaling coal mine dust can cause chronic airways diseases including emphysema and chronic bronchitis, according to the National Institutes of Heath.

Tidewater has been dealing with coal for more than 100 years. Norfolk Sothern’s Lamberts Point is the largest coal export facility in the United States and 48-million tons of coal a year. The coal being hauled into both Lamberts Point and Dominion Terminal in Newport News is classified as metallurgical, typically used in steel making and shipped overseas.

Trains carrying open hoppers of coal run at speeds between 30 – 40 miles per hour through highly populated areas such as downtown Suffolk, Williamsburg, Newport News and Chesapeake several times a day.

The coal business has declined in the last two decades, with Norfolk Southern reporting a 54% decrease in total tonnage hauled between 2002 and 2022, according to its annual reports to stockholders.

However, the petition asserts the damage has been done.

This image is included in the petition to the EPA of a Norfolk Southern train at Cassandra Crossing, West Slope, Pennsylvania. (Courtesy: Sierra Club)

“Soil samples collected in 2007 at several sites located within 500m of a Norfolk Southern rail line delivering coal to a large transshipment facility in Norfolk, Va. — all of which were located outside of the facility’s fence line — were comprised of 7.42 –19.9% particulate coal, with the highest concentrations recorded within 50m of the shipping terminal rail junction,” the petition said, citing research from a 2007 study published by William J. Bounds & Karen H. Johannesson.

The petition states fine coal particulates adhere to and coat the leaves of seagrasses, which leads to reduced growth.

“As an organization that stands for meeting the immediate need of the families of today and strives to create a just and healthy future for the families of tomorrow, it is imperative that the harmful effects of coal dust and coal ash are addressed now,” Monét Johnson, New Virginia Majority lead organizer, said. “As an agency that is working to protect its citizens, it is the Environmental Protection Agency’s duty to do everything possible to protect their most vulnerable populations from this harmful form of pollution, make a statement that they will not prioritize industry over integrity, and put an end to injustice.”  

Those who live near the two terminals have long complained of coal dust on their cars and homes as well as breathing problems at times, according to the petition.

The railroad has long maintained dust from Lambert’s Point does not pose a health threat to neighboring communities based on federal environmental standards.

Still the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality is currently executing a Tidewater Air Monitoring Evaluation Project, or TAME, that will measure and analyze toxic metals and particulates in the air around Lambert’s Point and the Southeast Community will use this information to conduct health risk assessments. 

Air quality monitors and sensors are currently placed throughout the community and you can see their measurements in real time.

As for the new petition, a spokesperson for Norfolk Southern didn’t address it when asked for comment, rather listed off effort to keep coal dust down at Lamberts Point. A spokesperson for CSX Transportation, which operates the coal trains on the peninsula, differed comment to the Association of American Railroads who did not respond for a request for comment.

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