Socially Vulnerable Communities Face Increasing Risks from Toxic Floodwaters in Virginia

2018 was one of the wettest years on record in Virginia, causing catastrophic floods and landslides, as well as unexpectedly high levels of pollution in the Commonwealth’s waterways and the Chesapeake Bay. While the last waterlogged year is only a recent memory for Virginians, seemingly unremarkable snow and rainfall at the end of February caused the James River to crest last week at its highest level in Richmond in almost ten years. Climate change has clearly transformed our experience with weather and our relationship with water. In a new report, the Center for Progressive Reform explores how this drives environmental injustice in Virginia through toxic flooding and the increasing risk of chemical exposures.

Flood-Exposed Hazardous Chemical Facilities in Census Tracts Scoring in the Highest Quartile Nationally for Social Vulnerability Located in the James River Watershed

Over the last two years, plant explosions in Texas and flooded coal ash impoundments in North Carolina have reminded us about an unmet need to adapt our approach to chemical safety. And before the chemical disasters of Hurricanes Harvey and Florence, there were the chemical spills and devastation of Sandy and Katrina. In each instance, the most vulnerable populations — the impoverished, elderly, children, and people of color — suffered the worst of the flooding and the resulting toxic contamination. Waterfront industrial areas containing hazardous and toxic chemicals are exposed to flood risks throughout the United States, but it is the fenceline neighborhoods — those recognized as environmental and climate justice communities — that are most vulnerable to resulting toxic exposures and harm.

Over the last two years, the Center for Progressive Reform, the James River Association, and Chesapeake Commons have investigated the threat of toxic floodwaters — uncontrolled chemical spills induced by climate impacts that contaminate downstream homes, schools, public spaces, and water systems. We created a novel method for assessing the threat of toxic floodwaters and adopted Virginia’s James River watershed as our first case study. We examined more than 2,700 hazardous chemical facilities in Virginia; their exposure to river flooding, hurricane storm surge, and sea-level rise; and the fenceline communities that are among the most vulnerable to potential disaster.

READ OUR REPORT: Toxic Floodwaters: The Threat of Climate-Driven Chemical Disaster in Virginia’s James River Watershed

We found more than 1,000 industrial facilities located in the most socially vulnerable communities that are exposed to flood risk. More than 473,000 Virginians — residents of census tracts that are among the most socially vulnerable to disaster — live where these flood-exposed industrial facilities are located. While we found most of the exposed facilities and communities in Hampton Roads, we saw others located in more upland and rural parts of the state.

Check out our toxic floodwaters report to learn more about our findings and review our policy recommendations for Virginia’s regulators and lawmakers. The report also includes a section for community members and citizen advocates that outlines opportunities to hold regulators and industrial facility owners accountable for preventing toxic floodwaters.

For more information

For even more on toxic floodwaters in Virginia and beyond, read CPR’s blog series on the topic and listen to the related Connect the Dots podcast episode below.

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