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Principal Findings from the James River Watershed

August 18, 2022
FINDING: More than 473,000 Virginians who live in 125 socially vulnerable census tracts in the James River watershed face the risk of toxic floodwaters because of flood-exposed industrial facilities.

We found that more than 473,000 Virginians reside in the 125 census tracts that both have a high national SVI score (top quartile) and have at least one flood-exposed industrial facility.  Many of the James River watershed’s census tracts among the most socially vulnerable to disaster are located within metropolitan Richmond and Hampton Roads, such as Petersburg, Hopewell, Norfolk, Newport News, Hampton, and Chesapeake. Others are found in rural areas, such as Surry and Buckingham counties, and small towns and cities in the western portion of the state, such as Clifton Forge and Buena Vista. In most cases, these tracts include communities facing issues of environmental justice exacerbated by climate change – that is, they are low-income or minority communities disproportionately affected by industrial pollution and the impacts of climate change.  

One of these highest quartile SVI tracts, in Norfolk, contains 164 flood-exposed industrial facilities and a population of more than 3,600 residents within one square mile. On average, these highest quartile SVI communities in the James River watershed each contain 25 flood-exposed facilities regulated for toxic and hazardous chemicals.  

FINDING: More than 1,000 flood-exposed industrial facilities that contain hazardous and toxic chemicals are located in highly vulnerable census tracts in the James River watershed.

In the James River watershed, we identified more than 2,700 facilities regulated for storage, use, contamination, and discharge of toxic and hazardous substances located within census tracts among the highest quartile nationally for social vulnerability. Of these, we determined that 1,095 are flood-exposed, as defined in our methodology section above.

Of these 1,095 facilities, we identified 567 facilities that are exposed to any two sources of flooding. 171 of these facilities are highly flood-exposed because any source of flooding – sea-level rise, storm surge, or heavy rain events in flood-zones – would affect them.  

Zeroing in geographically, we found that 234 facilities regulated for toxic and hazardous substances and located in the highest quartile SVI tracts within the tidal region of the James River – from Hampton Roads to Richmond – are likely to be flooded by future sea-level rise between one and five feet.  Strikingly, 91 of these facilities will be flooded by only one foot of sea-level rise, which climate scientists expect to occur by 2050. This last statistic is particularly significant because it means these facilities will be under water within the next 30 years. They should be closely assessed by regulators, industry, and community groups to determine what can be done to reduce risks of off-site contamination.

Our research identified facilities in census tracts in the highest quartile for social vulnerability nationally that are potentially exposed to flooding from sea level rise, based upon projections from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration modeling. We found that only one foot of sea level rise would expose 91 facilities likely containing hazardous chemicals to regular flooding. Climate scientists expect Virginia to experience one additional foot of sea level rise by 2050. We also found that further degrees of sea level rise expected by 2100 would result in potential flood exposure of 99, 115, 155, and 234 facilities for two, three, four, and five feet of projected sea level rise, respectively.

Our research identified facilities in census tracts in the highest quartile for social vulnerability nationally that are potentially exposed to flooding from hurricane storm-surge scenarios, based upon National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration modeling. We found that Category 1 and Category 2 storm surge would expose 138 and 352 facilities likely containing hazardous chemicals, respectively. Storm surge from a Category 3 hurricane – considered the lowest level of "major hurricane" – would expose at least 779 facilities to flooding.

Our research identified facilities in census tracts in the highest quartile for social vulnerability nationally that are potentially exposed to flooding because they are located in Federal Emergency Management Agency-designated flood zones. We found that 587 facilities likely containing hazardous chemicals are located in designated 100-year flood zones, which based upon past observations has at least a 1 percent chance of flooding in any given year. We found 819 facilities located in designated 500-year flood zones that have a 0.2 percent change of flooding in any given year.

FINDING: Flood-exposed facilities are regulated under different state and federal programs for toxic and hazardous chemicals. 

Virginians depend on the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to prevent harm to their safety, health, and environment through rigorous regulation of chemical use and storage, discharge of pollution into the environment, and chemical contamination at industrial sites. We focused our analysis on industrial facilities that are regulated under seven specific federal and state pollution control laws and rules, including Superfund and the Clean Water Act. We also focused on less well-known regulatory programs or pollution controls that may offer fewer protections, such as Virginia’s Voluntary Remediation Program and the so-called Tier II reporting requirements for hazardous chemicals, extremely hazardous substances, and petroleum products found in the federal Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act. We chose these seven programs because the facilities they regulate are highly likely to be using or storing toxic and hazardous substances on site.  

As noted, we found that 1,095 flood-prone facilities in the James River watershed’s high SVI census tracts are regulated under at least one of the seven state and federal programs, and many facilities are regulated under multiple programs.

 

 

Number of Facilities Located in Highest Quartile SVI Census Tracts

 

Number of These Facilities that Are Flood-Exposed

Resource Conservation and Recovery Act

1,193

335 (28%)

Clean Water Act

1,112

458 (41%)

Risk Management Program

28

5 (18%)

Superfund

19

9 (47%)

Tier II Chemical Inventory Reporters

158

36 (23%)

Virginia Voluntary Remediation Program

62

18 (29%)

Virginia Registered Petroleum Storage Tanks

263

263 (100%)

FINDING: Hampton Roads is especially vulnerable to climate-driven chemical disasters.

By virtue of its geography and economy, Hampton Roads faces particularly severe risks of damage from toxic floodwaters. Hampton Roads encompasses nine municipalities that sit at the mouth of the James River where it empties into the Chesapeake Bay. This tidewater region is flat, with a high water table and land that is subsiding while local sea levels are rising. As a result, it is one of the most climate-vulnerable regions in the United States. The largest naval base in the world is located in Hampton Roads. In fact, every branch of the U.S. military and NASA have facilities in the area, bringing jobs and investment but also myriad sources of pollution. Hampton Roads also has massive civilian intermodal port operations and other industrial facilities that process toxic and hazardous materials and discharge toxic pollution into surrounding communities.

Despite its robust economy, Hampton Roads, like many metropolitan regions nationally, is plagued by economic inequality. In some Hampton Roads localities, more than one in six residents lives in poverty. In Norfolk and Portsmouth, for example, almost a third of children live in poverty and a quarter of residents face housing insecurity or substandard housing conditions.[i] Even those with incomes ranking above federal poverty thresholds – nearly half of the households in Hampton and Newport News, for example – can barely afford regular living expenses on wages from one or multiple jobs.[ii] Many Hampton Roads residents may be unable to avoid exposure to toxic floodwaters and other environmental pollution in a post-disaster scenario. They may have limited transportation and housing options and may be unable to seek health care necessary to manage exposure.  

More than half (70) of the 125 census tracts with highest quartile SVI scores in the James River watershed that contain flood-exposed industrial facilities regulated for hazardous and toxic chemicals are located in Hampton, Newport News, Virginia Beach, Suffolk, Portsmouth, Chesapeake, and Norfolk. Of the 1,095 flood-exposed facilities regulated for hazardous and toxic chemicals in high SVI census tracts in the watershed, 849 (78 percent) are located in Hampton Roads. These individual census tract-designated communities are also among those containing the highest quantity and extent of industrial facilities that would be flooded by storm events and sea-level rise. Among 30 census tracts in the James River watershed that both rank in the highest quartile nationally on the SVI and had the highest quantity and degree of flood-exposed facilities, we found that 23 are located in Hampton Roads.

 

 

[i] County Health Rankings. Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.countyhealthrankings.org/app/virginia/2018/downloads.

[ii] Canty, M. Study: More than 1 million Virginians are 'working poor.' July 28, 2017. Daily Press. Retrieved from https://www.dailypress.com/health/dp-nws-working-poor-families-continue-struggle-hampton-roads-0728-20170727-story.html; United for Alice. Virginia. Retrieved from https://www.unitedwayalice.org/virginia.