Communities across the country are bearing the costs of our dependence on coal. While coal consumption in the United States has declined gradually over the past decade, coal exports have risen.
A coalition of environmental groups has filed the first-ever lawsuit challenging the federal government's financing for exports of Appalachian coal. Last year, the Export-Import Bank of the United States approved financing, putting taxpayer money on the line, to support a billion dollars in sales of coal exports—contributing to increased mining, coal train traffic, and port activity. The coal, mined in Appalachia, will be shipped from ports in Baltimore, MD and Norfolk, VA to markets in Japan, South Korea and China, generating coal dust and diesel soot along the way, and promoting dirty energy.
The potential impacts of coal exports on these communities—which face a chain reaction of increased mining, rail traffic, and port activity—remains woefully unaddressed by state and federal regulators.
Read four stories of Virginia and Maryland residents whose lives will be affected by increased coal export operations:
"As a nurse, I see the first-hand impacts of coal dust and air pollution on my own health, the health of my daughter and of my patients."
"Every day, I see and hear open coal cars rumbling behind my home. The dust and soot don't have far to go before they're part of the air my family and my neighbors breathe."
"Any more coal dust on my property and in the air I breathe could make it unbearable for me to stay in my home of fifty years."
Black dust accumulates on the sidewalks and concrete walls near the hospital where Lorraine works. She worries that any increase in coal-related pollution could worsen health problems her and her daughter already experience. Her college-age daughter, who has lived for years near coal-carrying trains and attends college a mile from a coal export facility, struggles with asthma.
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.
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, Lorraine 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.* Lorraine moved to the area 20 years ago. She deals with respiratory problems, and her college-age daughter struggles with asthma. Lorraine 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 Lorraine. "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. Lorraine 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," Lorraine says. "I would consider moving from the area."
Desiree and her dog in their backyard, as a train rumbles past on tracks less than a hundred feet from her home. Open coal cars pass by daily, coal dust flying off the tops, contaminating the air and soil all along the way.
Desiree Bullard lives on the other side of the state from Baltimore's coal export facilities. But at her home in Western Maryland, where she's lived for 20 years, she feels its impacts every day. Her backdoor is roughly 75 feet from railroad tracks over which open coal trains rumble, en route to Baltimore from mining operations in the mountains of Appalachia.
At least once a day, she sees a train roll through the CSX line with coal cars that are open. Dust flies off of the tops of them into her neighborhood.
"The dust and soot don't have far to go to before they're part of the air my family and I breathe," says Desiree. "The fact that there will be more coal transported through my community and more dust and soot in the air definitely concerns me."
Desiree's concerns are well-founded. A study† in Virginia found that, on average, a pound of coal dust blows off of each coal car per mile travelled. That's a total of 25–30 tons of coal dust polluting rail communities like Desiree's from one single mine-to-port trip.
The trains impact the quality of life of Desiree and her mother, a nurse. The loud noise makes outdoor conversation impossible. She and her mother are avid gardeners, but fear that coal dust and soot contaminates the soil they use to grow food. More trains rumbling by her home could increase the risk of dangerous accidents and reduce the value of the family home she stands to inherit.
Desiree's also concerned about the big-picture problem that the coal trains rumbling through her neighborhood are helping to fuel—global warming.
"I am especially concerned about global warming and its effects on the environment and health of my friends, family, and future generations," says Desiree. "For the safety of all communities, we need to reduce, not expand, our use of fossil fuels like coal."
Coal dust and soot coats Ms. Fox's property inside and out. Her Curtis Bay neighborhood ranks among the worst in the state and the country for respiratory risk caused by concentrations of toxic air pollutants.
Margaret Fox is 73 years old, and a life-long resident of the Curtis Bay neighborhood of Baltimore. Her neighborhood already bears an unjust load of industrial pollution—its zipcode ranks among the worst in the state and the country for respiratory risk caused by concentrations of toxic air pollutants.‡
For 50 years, Ms. Fox has lived half a block from one of the culprits—the CSX coal export and processing facility. As coal trains travel to the facility, they pollute the air as coal dust flies off the tops of their cars and diesel soot spews from their engines. Large ships loaded with coal emit significant amounts of soot as they leave the port.
"I have seen, heard, and felt impacts … over the course of my entire life," says Ms. Fox.
From her front porch, Ms. Fox watches coal dust blow into the air as trains dump coal from open cars, into chutes, onto conveyor belts, and onto ships. She hears the trains and heavy machinery from inside her house—and the loud operations sometimes continue all night long.
Coal dust and soot coat her property inside and out. "I see it on my furniture, deck, window sills, and siding of my house, and on door frames and air conditioner vents in my home," says Ms. Fox. A white carpet she once installed turned black after barely four years.
Ms. Fox fears the impact that exposure to coal dust and soot is having on her health and that of her family. Over the past three years, there has been a 30 percent increase in the amount of coal being exported from Baltimore's coal terminals. Further expansion of the CSX facility could be a breaking point for Ms. Fox.
"It scares me to think that more coal will be exported from this facility," she says. "More coal dust on my property and in the air I breathe could make it unbearable for me to stay in my home."
The Filbert Community Garden looks down on a pile of coal the size of a football field, sitting uncovered at the CSX coal export terminal. On windy days, Jason and his students have seen coal dust blowing off the largest coal pile.
Jason Reed directs and manages the Filbert Community Garden in Curtis Bay, teaching students lessons in growing food and healthy eating, while also providing a nutritious food source for the community.
The garden where he works outside, typically nine hours a day, sits atop a hill about four blocks from the CSX coal export terminal. Jason can look down on a pile of coal the size of a football field, sitting uncovered. On windy days, Jason and his students have seen coal dust blowing off the largest coal pile. Daily, he hears the noise of the coal operation reverberate through the community, which is overburdened by the clanking and pollution of industrial activity.
Jason sees expansion of coal transport activity at Curtis Bay as a real threat to the health of the community he cares about.
"Many of the students in my classes have asthma or have other health problems that make them vulnerable to air pollution," says Jason. It's an observation backed up by the statistics he gathers for grant reports. "It doesn't make sense for me to spend all day sweating over one acre of soil to provide healthy food for the community, but ignore the harmful effects of industrial pollution on acres and acres of adjacent land."
The Export-Import Bank never informed the public of its plans to finance more coal transport through Curtis Bay, so Jason is taking time from his garden work to spread the word himself.
"It distresses me that yet more industrial activity is proposed for the Curtis Bay neighborhood but the people who will be directly affected have not been informed or consulted," says Jason. "I encourage people to participate in public meetings and other processes designed to allow them to voice their concerns and stand up for their rights to clean air and a healthy community. Yet, the Export-Import Bank failed to give us any opportunity to participate in such a process."