The Oakwood area of Buchanan County in western Virginia is home to fewer than 1,600 people but produced 920 pounds of pollution per person in 2016. That’s more than 200 times the state average of 4.2 pounds per person.
Oakwood is home to the Jewell Coke Co., a coal processing plant. The Jewell Coke plant mainly releases hydrochloric acid into the air. Breathing hydrochloric acid can cause throat irritation and long-term respiratory issues such as asthma.
Last year, Jewell Coke Co. reported releasing more than 1.6 million pounds of onsite pollution, with about 1.2 million pounds going into the air.
“It does have DEQ air permits. Their emissions are limited and controlled by the permits,” said Bill Hayden from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.
“1.2 million pounds sounds like a lot, but it is permitted, and it is an allowable amount that DEQ believes that, even though it’s going into the air, it will not harm air quality,” he said.
SunCoke Energy, Jewell Coke Co.’s parent company, declined to comment about the releases.
The Clover area in Halifax County and the Accomac area of Accomack County also have high amounts of pollution per person, with around 780 and 670 pounds respectively.
Dominion Energy’s Clover Power Station runs up Clover’s numbers. It reported releasing more than 1.1 million pounds of pollution onsite. The releases included 19 different chemicals, such as zinc compounds and sulfuric acid.
In Accomack County, the Perdue Farms Accomac Processing Plant released nitrate compounds and hydrogen sulfide, totaling almost 800,000 pounds of pollution.
This data is from the 2016 Toxic Release Inventory compiled by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The inventory requires companies to report releases of certain chemicals every year. Hayden said it is intended to let people know what is released in their community.
“The hope is that they will start reducing those amounts because of public pressure, and that’s what has happened over the last 30 years,” he said.
Hayden stressed that the pollution released from these factories is all permitted. According to the EPA’s enforcement and compliance history online database, Jewell Coke Co., the Clover Power Station and the Perdue Farms Accomac Processing Plant all are currently in compliance with the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Resources Conservation and Recovery Act.
The Sierra Club of Virginia similarly analyzed the 2015 toxic release inventory to find the most polluted areas of the state.
“We call on the Department of Environmental Quality and our elected officials to support increased opportunities for engagement in the Title V air pollution permitting process,” Kendyl Crawford, the group’s conservation program manager, said when the study was published.
“Virginians living in highly polluted areas should be given more opportunities to speak for themselves and to fight these large corporations spewing toxic chemicals into the communities where they live.”
Poverty and pollution
The Sierra Club’s report points out connections between large amounts of pollution and high poverty rates.
Oakwood, Clover and Accomac all have large amounts of pollution with few residents, giving them high rates of pollution per person. Clover and Accomac are also above the average poverty rate for Virginia.
Of the 10 ZIP codes with the most pollution per person, six are above the state’s average poverty rate. Six of the top 10 ZIP codes with the highest total pounds of pollution are also above Virginia’s average poverty rate.
However, of the 10 poorest ZIP codes in the state, only one is also above the state average for pounds per person released.
The 24089 ZIP code area outside of Martinsville in Henry County has a poverty rate of 38.5 percent and is the second poorest ZIP code in the state. There, 122 pounds of pollution is released per person.
The Eastman Chemical Co. has two plants in this area. In 2016, it produced over 700,000 pounds of onsite pollution, released into the air. The company makes window films.
Biggest polluter: The Army Radford Munitions Plant
The U.S. Army Radford Munitions Plant, located on the New River in Montgomery County, has the highest onsite emissions of all facilities in Virginia. In 2016, the plant released over 12 million pounds of pollution, contributing to the area’s 282.8 pounds of pollution per person.
The vast majority of the plant’s emissions are nitrate compounds released into bodies of water.
These emissions have caused issues with environmental regulations for the plant. Nitrates reduce the amount of oxygen dissolved in nearby streams, which aquatic plants and animals need to survive. The munitions plant has been in violation of the Clean Water Act since October 2016 for depleting oxygen levels in surrounding bodies of water, according to the EPA’s enforcement and compliance history online database.
Last August, the facility was also in violation of the Clean Air Act for visible airborne emissions and particulate matter.
Over the past few years, the plant executives have worked to be more open to the public and to address concerns voiced by residents of the surrounding area. Lt. Col. James Scott, commander of the plant, said at a recent community meeting that the facility is committed to transparency.
Open burning onsite has long been the community’s biggest concern. A current project will decrease open burning, but it is unclear when the new waste incinerator will be finished.
The area has a poverty rate of 27.9 percent – almost double the state average of 14.9 percent.
MeadwestVaco in Covington is Virginia’s second largest polluter, releasing over 2.5 million pounds of pollution in 2016. That works out to about 180 pounds of pollution per person in the ZIP code around the facility.
MeadwestVaco releases various chemicals, mainly methanol, through a smoke stack. Exposure to airborne methanol over a long period of time can lead to headaches, nausea and vision issues.
Other large polluters are the AdvanSix plant in Hopewell and the Covington Power Station.
By Julie Rothey
Capital News Service