The James River watershed in Virginia is among the regions of the country most vulnerable to the consequences of climate change. It faces higher than average sea-level rise, intensifying precipitation rates, and increased hurricane risks. As major storms cause serious and potentially toxic flooding in the James River watershed – and elsewhere in the United States – residents are reminded that the industries surrounding them are not doing enough to plan and adapt to our changing world.
In the last two years, extreme rainfall and storm surge from Hurricanes Florence and Harvey flooded industrial facilities ill equipped to handle such massive storms. Contaminants ranging from oil and gas to toxic metals were let loose by floodwaters and spread into the surrounding communities. These discharges may be accurately described as “toxic floodwaters”: storm-induced or climate change-related flooding that carries toxic and hazardous contaminants.
Toxic floodwaters have serious health consequences. After Florence and Harvey, residents in North Carolina and Texas complained of headaches, burning eyes and throats, dizziness, and other health problems. Public health professionals raised concerns about floodwaters leaving a hazardous residue in homes, businesses, water systems, and more.
Such health and environmental risks are amplified by social and legal factors. For example, communities that lack access to reliable transportation and temporary housing are more likely to face prolonged exposure to floodwaters and residual contamination. In this way, social vulnerability interacts with geography and climate to produce a health crisis.
The Commonwealth of Virginia is no stranger to documented toxic floodwater incidents:
Virginia has always been vulnerable to hurricane storm surge, river flooding, and sea-level rise. But no one has conducted a comprehensive examination of the threat that storms and flooding pose to the vulnerable, fenceline communities surrounding hazardous chemical storage sites throughout the Commonwealth. Once toxic chemicals or other hazardous substances spill into floodwaters, there is very little time to react before they pose a serious public health threat.
That is the challenge this report takes up: providing the first comprehensive analysis of the threat of toxic floodwaters to Virginia’s environmental justice communities that are among the most socially vulnerable to natural and human disasters. In addition to examining the threats, this report outlines existing legal tools that these communities can use to demand better protections from climate-driven chemical disasters.
This report is the culmination of a three-year partnership between the Center for Progressive Reform, the James River Association, and Chesapeake Commons. This report focuses specifically on threats to communities identified by the federal government as high in social vulnerability to disaster. It should be noted, however, that there are also flood-exposed facilities storing toxic chemicals that pose risk to people of all socioeconomic backgrounds in the James River watershed.
We used a three-part methodology to prepare this report:
First, we identified all industrial facilities in the watershed likely to handle toxic and hazardous substances – those regulated under seven different state and federal pollution programs that specifically target hazardous chemicals.
Second, we created a novel geospatial model to map how these industrial facilities are exposed to potential flooding. To explore the flooding scenarios, we used environmental data for river flooding, storm surge, and sea-level rise from two federal agencies with expertise in the area, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Finally, we added information on social vulnerability to disaster for communities living near these facilities. For this part of our research, we relied upon data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Social Vulnerability Index (SVI) to identify the census tracts that are in the highest quartile nationally for social vulnerability to disaster events. The Index integrates U.S. Census data for 15 social, economic, and demographic metrics that together measure vulnerability to disaster. For example, the index includes metrics for vehicle access, crowded housing, age, education, English language usage, household income, and federal poverty status. Taken together, our analysis is the first step in understanding the health risk to the most vulnerable Virginians from the potential hazard of flood-driven chemical spills.
Our key findings are:
Facility owners and operators should bear most of the burden of preventing toxic floodwaters, and state and federal environmental regulators should hold companies accountable for their actions. We have focused on industrial facilities regulated under seven different state and federal programs that require industrial facilities to take measures to prevent, mitigate, and respond to chemical spills. For the most part, Virginia regulators at the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) are responsible for enforcing these laws and addressing the threat from toxic floodwaters. Virginia residents also have a role to play in holding facility operators accountable when they violate the law and by pressing state regulators to enforce the law.
Unfortunately, our careful examination leads to the inescapable conclusion that Virginia is simply not prepared to prevent or respond to toxic floodwaters. Our research and analysis show that lawmakers and regulators in the Commonwealth have not effectively addressed flooding risks at industrial facilities – risks that are growing due to climate change. Commonwealth residents face the potential for widespread pollution spills like the spills in Texas and North Carolina. Furthermore, without disaster planning and resources specifically focused on protecting these communities, it may take weeks, months, or even years to remediate toxic floodwater contamination in homes, schools, and businesses.
Virginia’s lawmakers and regulators must act to address the threat of toxic floodwaters, focusing on the most vulnerable communities first.
Our key policy recommendations are:
Finally, Virginia’s General Assembly and Governor should establish and fund a task force to recommend policy reforms addressing climate impacts on pollution permitting and regulatory design. The task force should issue criteria for deploying resilience and disaster-response funding to the most vulnerable populations in the Commonwealth, with the aim of mitigating the risk of harm from climate-driven chemical disasters. Such a task force would also create an opportunity for the Commonwealth’s philanthropic community to contribute by making new investments in community-based organizations that have the expertise and ability to hold industrial facilities and regulators accountable.