Throughout history, wherever there has been industry, there has been a waterway.
Whether river, sea or ocean, these bodies of water have long appealed to businesses, which have harnessed their flow to generate power, cool machines and technology, and ship their goods all over the world.
Without the Merrimack and the Concord, Lowell would never have become the hub of textile manufacturing. Without the Monongahela, Pittsburgh steel would never have forged the modern world. Without the Detroit River, the Motor City would never have attained its global fame.
But with the Earth warming and sea level rising, many riverside clusters of industry are ground zero for rising waters — posing a new risk for the environment and those living nearby.
In a report issued this spring, the Center for Progressive Reform finds that almost 1,100 industrial facilities in Virginia’s James River watershed that use state or federally regulated chemicals are exposed to both potential flooding and projected sea level rise. Worse, they are located in socially vulnerable communities where residents have the fewest resources to escape a disaster’s effects.
The Toxic Floodwaters report, produced in partnership with the James River Association and Chesapeake Commons, contends that severe floods aren’t the only concern. Just one foot of sea level rise will flood 91 of these facilities, while 234 will be flooded by sea level rise of 1–5 feet.
“We’ve had several wake-up calls about the extent of contamination that can happen from floodwaters,” said Noah Sachs, one of the report’s authors and a professor at the University of Richmond. “So why is it that we sometimes focus on preventing a one-in-a-million increased risk of cancer with our environmental laws? … I think that we’re ignoring a much, much bigger danger to our communities.”
“Toxic floodwaters,” a term coined by Sachs and co-author David Flores, a policy analyst with the Center for Progressive Reform, are the contaminated waters that are discharged from industrial facilities during floods.
The James River watershed is particularly vulnerable to this danger because of two factors. First, it is heavily industrialized, with major agglomerations of facilities containing toxic or hazardous chemicals in Hampton Roads, Hopewell, Richmond and Lynchburg.
Second, Tidewater Virginia is experiencing the second most rapid rate of sea level rise in the nation, behind only the Gulf of Mexico region. And that rise, Sachs said, will affect not only coastal areas, but regions inland along the river — “upstream all the way to Richmond, every inlet, every part of the estuary, every tributary that has tidal waters.”
The watershed is also highly populated, home to an estimated 2.9 million people. Of those, almost half a million are defined as “socially vulnerable,” a term used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to measure a community’s resilience to external stresses on human health, natural or human-caused disasters, or disease outbreaks.
“In the event of climate and chemical disaster, a household without reliable transportation to evacuate may be immobilized in their homes and exposed to toxic contamination from floodwaters,” the report finds. Such a household might also not have access to temporary housing or lack the means to fully address the contamination in and around their homes, leading to longer exposure.
Urban areas are more likely to be affected by toxic floodwaters because of their high concentrations of industry and denser populations, but rural areas are also vulnerable. Coal ash storage pits, which contain toxic substances like arsenic, lead and mercury, are one possible threat. Another is agricultural waste.
The scale of the impact of agricultural waste was illustrated by Hurricane Florence in 2018, when more than 100 lagoons containing hog waste in North Carolina either overflowed or breached their walls, causing extensive water contamination. Nearly 20 years earlier, Hurricane Floyd caused identical impacts, which officials told the New York Times “might have been averted.”
These are only a handful of precedents cited in Toxic Floodwaters as evidence that the report’s headline issue is not just a potential problem, but a pattern already unfolding.
In Virginia, the chronicle of disasters includes the Election Day Flood of 1985, in which pesticide spills led to cattle deaths; flash flooding in Covington in 2016 that knocked over oil drums, causing an environmental hazard; and numerous wastewater overflows and landfill washouts in large-scale storms such as hurricanes.
The toppling of the Covington oil drums reveals that, when it comes to floodwaters, environmental risks can assume many guises.
“This isn’t just an issue for the chemical industry,” Sachs said. “It’s large– and small-scale manufacturing. It can be an agricultural supply center. It could be a company that is storing powdered pesticides outdoors.”
Such potential hazards are “commonplace, and they’re right next to residential neighborhoods,” he said.
But it is not all doom and gloom: The report asserts that the harms from climate-driven chemical disasters can be reduced.
In that effort, Sachs and Flores are clear that private industry should “bear most of the burden of preventing toxic floodwaters,” but that government must also assume a more forceful stance to hold companies accountable.
Sharing information is a key part of this charge.
The federal Emergency Planning and Community-Right-to-Know Act of 1986 requires states to disclose data about any federally recognized hazardous chemicals that are stored or released by facilities within their borders. But Sachs said that the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality has recently restricted access to information about the types of chemicals being stored and their locations. (The DEQ does annually make public Virginia’s Toxics Release Inventory, which details all significant chemical releases in the state.)
“DEQ should immediately reverse its recent policy on public disclosures of Tier II data and should make this hazardous chemical storage data freely accessible to residents through online access, as other states, such as Illinois, have already done,” the report urges.
Other key recommendations include establishing new regulations to oversee above-the-ground storage tanks as well as containing coal ash waste in landfills that are not exposed to flooding under current or future projections.
Both Flores and Sachs emphasized the value of a statewide analysis of chemical flood risks, which Flores called “totally necessary and justified.”
“We have every intention and desire to export this analysis to other watersheds,” he said.