Great Dismal Swamp cleanup complete, but Dorian flooding poses other pollution risks

By: - September 5, 2019 5:00 pm

Hurricane Dorian in 2019. (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

As a revitalized Hurricane Dorian continues its sweep up the East Coast, Virginians concerned about the environmental impacts of flooding can rest easy about at least one site: the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, where a Norfolk Southern train derailed in June, spilling 36 cars full of coal into the sensitive terrain.

On Thursday, Virginia Department of Environmental Quality spokeswoman Ann Regn confirmed that cleanup of the site is complete. Planting and seeding activities that aim to restore the land to its previous condition are ongoing.

“Erosion and sediment controls are still in place and should capture/control any impacts seen from the storm,” Regn wrote in an email.

But while the threat of floodwaters from Dorian spreading coal pollution farther through the Great Dismal Swamp may have been averted, other sites remain highly vulnerable.

After reducing in intensity as it approached Florida, Dorian regained strength Wednesday night and is expected to bring tropical storm conditions to the Hampton Roads and Eastern Shore regions Friday. Richmond Times-Dispatch meteorologist John Boyer reported that these areas could see both coastal and inland flooding, as well as a 2- to 4-foot storm surge.

Virginia Beach announced a mandatory evacuation of residents from Sandbridge Thursday afternoon. Voluntary evacuations are in place for residents in Zone A and some on-base military housing attached to Naval Air Station Oceana.

While flooding’s impact is often measured in terms of residents displaced and buildings damaged, it also brings with it significant risk of environmental disaster if the waters come into contact with industrial chemicals or environmental pollution such as coal ash or agricultural waste.

In a report by the Center for Progressive Reform, James River Association and Chesapeake Commons released this spring, researchers found that within the James River watershed alone, almost 1,100 industrial facilities using state or federally regulated chemicals are exposed to the risks of flooding and sea level rise. Many of these facilities are located in or near socially vulnerable communities.

The ash impoundments at Dominion Energy’s shuttered Chesapeake Energy Center along the Elizabeth River was listed as a climate-vulnerable facility in a report this past spring. Dominion is in the process of removing the ash from the site. (Ryan Kelly/ For the Virginia Mercury)

David Flores, one of the report’s authors, on Thursday noted in a blog post that in the Hampton Roads region, these communities “contain at least 150 – but possibly more than 400 – hazardous chemical facilities that could be exposed to storm surge flooding from Category 1 and Category 2 hurricanes.”

Flooding in prior storms has led to chemical spills in places in Virginia such as Covington and Northern Virginia, while flooding from Hurricane Florence sent toxic waste from hog farms and coal ash landfills into waterways in North Carolina.

Image courtesy Center for Progressive Reform

Superfund sites — places designated by the federal government as having the nation’s highest levels of pollution — are particular flood risks because of the hazardous nature of the substances they contain, which can significantly impact human health and the environment.

Hampton Roads is home to 14 Superfund sites, including the Atlantic Wood site in Chesapeake, the Norfolk Naval Base, Peck Iron and Metal in Portsmouth, Fort Eustis in Newport News and the Saunders Supply Co. wood processor in Suffolk. Many of these sites directly abut rivers or wetlands.

Reporter Mechelle Hankerson contributed to this story.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is the Mercury's environment and energy reporter, covering everything from utility regulation to sea level rise. Originally from McLean, she has spent over a decade in journalism and academic publishing and previously worked as a staff reporter for Chesapeake Bay Journal, the Progress-Index and the Caroline Progress. She is the recipient of a first place award for explanatory reporting from the Society of Environmental Journalists and has twice been honored by the Virginia Press Association as "Best in Show" for online writing. She was chosen for the 2020 cohort of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and is a graduate of the College of William and Mary. Contact her at [email protected]