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Costs of Coal Exports, Part I: Lorraine Ortega of Virginia

We're making progress in ending America's dependence on coal thanks to the work of Earthjustice and others to prevent the construction of new coal plants and hold existing coal plants to more stringent environmental standards. Now, hoping to shore up its bottom line, Big Coal is increasingly looking to ships millions of tons of U.S. coal to Asia instead.

Earthjustice is challenging this alarming trend. In July, we filed a lawsuit opposing the federal government’s financing of the export of Appalachian coal to Asia. The U.S. Export-Import Bank approved this financial support for coal exports without considering the increased toxic air and water pollution that could affect communities near the mines and ports, and along the railways that connect them.

In this first installment of a four-part series, we meet Lorraine Ortega who is a member of one such community, living near the Lamberts Point coal export facility in Norfolk, Virginia.

This is Lorraine's story:

Lorraine Ortega works as a nurse at Norfolk General Hospital, less than two miles from Lamberts Point, the nation's busiest coal export terminal.

Every morning, train cars, many of them carrying coal, pass just a half mile from her Chesapeake home, which is along the Norfolk Southern rail line that runs to the export terminal in Lamberts Point. As she sets out for her morning commute, she regularly sees train cars full of coal.

Lamberts Point, seen to the left across the Elizabeth River, is the busiest coal export terminal in the country. (Stephen Little)

Lamberts Point, seen to the left across the Elizabeth River, is the busiest coal export terminal in the country. (Stephen Little)

Black dust accumulates on the sidewalks and concrete walls near the hospital where she works. The ponds and lakes in her neighborhood—as well as the air filters in her car and home—are frequently polluted with tarry, black grime, which she believes is coal dust from the open cars and diesel soot from the trains' engines.

As a nurse, Ortega is acutely aware of the health consequences of air pollution—she's treated many patients with respiratory problems. Chesapeake and Norfolk have higher rates of asthma compared to the state and national averages.* Ortega moved to the area 20 years ago. She deals with respiratory problems, and her college-age daughter struggles with asthma. She worries that any increase in coal-related pollution could make their health problems worse.

"My daughter and I have to take antihistamines and decongestants and use nasal sprays and inhalers for chronic congestion," says Ortega. "I am especially concerned about my daughter because her breathing problems appear far worse than mine."

Her daughter landed in the emergency room several times with acute asthma during high school, when she rowed crew on the Lafayette River, a few miles from the coal export terminal. Now a student at Old Dominion University, just a mile from Lamberts Point, her daughter has stopped participating in outdoor sports in the area. Ortega herself avoids walking, hiking and biking when trains are nearby, and fears that increased traffic, noise and pollution would further curtail her ability to enjoy the outdoors.

"I am deeply concerned about the health, transportation, and environmental impacts that increased coal transport and export operations will have on my home, family, and community," she says. "I would consider moving from the area."

Lorraine Ortega's story was recorded and generously made available
by the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

Desiree Bullard. (CCAN)

Next week, in the second part of this series, we meet Desiree Bullard, who lives along rail lines in Cumberland, MD, that are experiencing increased traffic from open coal trains.

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Tags:  Air, Coal, coal exports