Defending Mother Earth


Originally published in the Autumn 2019 edition of the Virginia Defender, issue 60, printed October 28. Reproduced here for accessibility and archival purposes. To find other stories in the Autumn 2019 issue or to download the full PDF, see this post. For the full web catalog, see our Full Issues page.

Some 800 people, most of them young, march from Monroe Park to Richmond City Hall Sept. 20 to demand the city government declare a “climate emergency.” The march and a following rally were part of a Global Climate Strike. Photo by Phil Wilayto.

By M.L. Bartell

With the stifling, record-breaking heat waves this year and students striking in the streets, climate change is heating things up in Virginia.

Here are a few of the local impacts:

  • All the seasons are warmer, particularly night temperatures, and winters are warming the most.
  • Spring comes earlier. Summer lasts longer. That changes migration patterns, habitats, and the timing of natural cycles for some plants and animals.
  • Warmer seasons have lengthened allergy seasons and increased asthma attacks across the Southeast. Tick season lasts longer and mosquito season is now more than 30 days longer than in 1980, increasing the risk of illnesses like Lyme Disease and West Nile Virus.
  • We have longer dry spells and more concentrated bursts of rain throughout the Southeast, with large rainfall events increasing 16 percent in frequency over the last 70 years.
  • Coastal Virginia has seen 14 inches of relative sea level rise since 1930, the highest rate on the Atlantic Coast.
  • Heat waves are more frequent and intense, exacerbated in cities due to the “urban heat island” effect.
  • Research suggests that the frequency of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes in the North Atlantic will increase by 50 percent in coming years, with a 20 percent increase in rainfall.

Who gets hit the hardest?

Like so many social issues, climate change will hit the most marginalized members of society the hardest. This is true across the globe and in Virginia, where communities of color and low-income neighborhoods are already feeling the brunt of the changes.

Consider heat waves, the largest weather-related cause of death in the United States. Research by Jeremy S. Hoffman, Ph.D, the first climate scientist to work at the Virginia Science Museum, found that neighborhoods within Richmond can vary by 16°F depending on the amount of green space and tree cover. The hottest neighborhoods in Richmond have the highest rate of heat-related illnesses. Lower-income homes and public housing without AC are the most vulnerable, because warmer nighttime temperatures mean houses don’t cool off.

All these risks are exacerbated when people can’t access health insurance. Kids, the elderly and people living with chronic illnesses are the most vulnerable.

The risk of toxic flood waters also makes the 10,000-square-mile James River watershed one of the most vulnerable areas to climate change in the country. According to the Center for Progressive Reform, the most socially vulnerable communities in the watershed have on average 25 industrial facilities that store toxic waste vulnerable to expected levels of sea level rise, storm surges and river flooding.

Just a Category 3 storm could flood more than 779 of these sites, potentially releasing carcinogenic pesticides, coal ash and toxic chemicals. The 125 most socially vulnerable communities with flood-exposed industrial facilities are home to more than 473,000 Virginians. Most of these sites are around Richmond and Hampton Roads.

Crisis Capitalism in Norfolk

Despite – or because of – these threats, corporations, politicians and nonprofits have been swooping in to profit off the $1.5 trillion-dollar climate change adaptation and mitigation industry at the expense of low-income communities and people of color.

In Norfolk, scientists expect another foot of sea-level rise in Hampton Roads by 2050, which means an expected loss of approximately 2,800 square miles of coast and 27,000 buildings by 2060 unless they are flood-proofed.

In response, Norfolk officials are working furiously to rebrand the city as the “Silicon Valley of sea level rise,” as Director of City Planning George Homewood has said. As part of the city’s Vision 2100 Plan for climate adaptation, city officials rezoned Norfolk into four areas based on sea-level rise projections, development and economic assets. High-value areas will be secured with major flood-control investments, whereas low-value areas with high flood risk will receive “educational programs” about flood risks and programs to help property owners recover their economic losses from sea-level rise.

Unfortunately, “climate adaptation” is often a codeword for gentrification, as in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.

In May, Norfolk won a $30 million grant through the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Choice Neighborhoods Initiative to “revitalize” the St. Paul’s public housing neighborhood, one of the most flood-prone areas in the city. In 2020, the city will begin tearing down the area’s public housing complexes and replacing them with “mixed-income development.” Part of the low-lying area will be converted into parks and a water-eco center.

While city officials once assured current residents they wouldn’t be displaced, apparently only a third of the 4,200 people currently living in St. Paul’s will be able to return. About half the residents will be given Section 8 vouchers to find housing elsewhere, but city officials have acknowledged that there won’t be room for everyone to stay in Norfolk. Many community members have spoken out against the plan, as a similar “redevelopment program” displaced hundreds of families from the area in 2000.

The St. Paul’s area also will be turned into an “Opportunity Zone,” one of President Trump’s federal programs that offer tax incentives to steer private investment to low-income neighborhoods.

The Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority did not respond to multiple requests for comments.

Environmental racism

While Gov. Ralph Northam has set a “carbon-free” energy goal for 2050 and pays lip service to “climate adaptation” and “environmental justice,” his policies and allegiance to corporations like Dominion prove otherwise. In early October, Northam appointed Grant Neely, Dominion’s previous Director of Strategic Communications, to be his new Communications Chief.

Gov. Northam did sign a bipartisan deal this year requiring Dominion to clean up more than 27 million cubic yards of coal ash that have been causing widespread groundwater contamination around the sites for years. While the deal looks like a “win” for Northam, it also allows Dominion to shift to taxpayers the cleanup costs, estimated at $2.4 billion to $5.7 billion, according to the Richmond Times Dispatch.

In North Carolina, there are suspected cancer clusters near Lake Norman, where one of Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds is located. Due to a lack of state funding, one mother has had to fundraise $110,000 to test the air and drinking water after her daughter was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Professor Mary Finley-Brook of the University of Richmond is concerned that the same pattern may occur in Virginia and recommends rigorous water testing with maps to demonstrate any spread of contamination to groundwater and wells.

In Norfolk, the historically Black neighborhood of Lambert’s Point is still being blanketed in coal dust spewed by the Norfolk Southern rail company. Coal dust inhalation is linked to respiratory diseases, which are exacerbated by climate change.

Like Dominion, Norfolk Southern has donated heavily to Northam.

Instead of reducing these risks, Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality continues siding with corporations to approve projects like the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, Mountain Valley Pipeline and Chickahominy fracked-gas plant. All these natural gas projects disproportionately impact Black, Indigenous, and low-income people, stealing land and polluting water and air.

Dominion often frames natural gas as necessary for “carbon mitigation” to limit climate change. In reality, studies show that the estimated methane leakage from natural gas can make it just as bad for the climate as burning coal. Yet Dominion was guaranteed a hefty 14 percent rate of return on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which will cost Virginia ratepayers an additional $2.4 billion.

More than $57 million in mitigation funds also were distributed to six Virginia foundations and endowments to “offset” environmental damage caused by the pipelines, signed in a secret deal between then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Dominion and the other pipeline developers.

In other words, politicians and corporations are polluting the environment in marginalized communities in the name of “carbon mitigation” without actually reducing greenhouse gases, in exchange for profit and cash that is funneled to foundations.

“There’s a glaring disparity between when someone has money and a voice,” said Queen Zakia Shabazz of the Virginia Environmental Justice Collaborative (VEJC), pointing to the decision to move the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s largest compressor station from near the Mount Vernon plantation to the predominantly Black community of Union Hill in Buckingham County. “How is it not OK to destroy a view, but it’s OK to destroy the lives and cultures of families?”

On Oct. 29, the Federal Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit will be hearing a case brought by the Friends of Buckingham challenging the permit for the Union Hill compressor station on the grounds of environmental racism.

On a positive note, Shabazz said the VEJC recently received funding for the planning stage for a resiliency hub in Petersburg. This project will create a solar-powered community center where folks can come for supplies, air conditioning and safety in the case of severe weather.

If the VEJC receives the full funding, this project could demonstrate one way to reduce risks from climate change, rather than amplify them.

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