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Methodology & Definitions

In Virginia, the accelerating consequences of climate change are increasing the risks of chemical disasters, environmental pollution, and hazards to public health from flood-exposed facilities. In the analysis that follows, we deem a facility flood-exposed if it is located in a federally designated flood zone, if it is in a location that would be flooded by storm surge from up to a Category 3 hurricane, or if it would be flooded by levels of sea-level rise – up to 5 feet –predicted this century. Some facilities are flood-exposed because of all three risks.  

Curbing Coal Ash Contamination

The James River Association and their allies in the Virginia environmental advocacy community recently won enhanced pollution controls for storage of toxic coal ash waste at several waterfront facilities in the Commonwealth. Grassroots leaders and environmental groups coordinated for several years to secure new state rules on permanent disposal and containment of leaking coal ash pits through negotiations with state regulators, bipartisan members of the General Assembly, the Governor, and Dominion Energy, the owner of the coal ash facilities. In the years to come, environmental advocates will continue their efforts to ensure accountability in coal ash waste disposal through public participation and advocacy. 

In the southeast United States, the intensity of precipitation has increased substantially in the last 70 years, and the largest rainfall events have increased 16 percent in frequency, driving the incidence of river flooding dramatically in some areas.[i] Federal climate scientists expect this trend to continue over the next several decades, with heavy rainfall incidents doubling in frequency and the volume of rainfall during these events increasing by 21 percent.[ii] In one recent national study, scientists determined that climate change has increased the number of people exposed to river flooding by between 260 percent and 310 percent beyond those accounted for in current federal river flooding designations, which are based on past observations.[iii]

Virginia is already particularly vulnerable to damage from hurricane storm surge and will become even more so as climate change continues to produce larger and more destructive hurricanes more likely to follow northerly tracks.[iv] Research suggests that in the North Atlantic, climate change will increase the frequency of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes by 50 percent, with an average 20 percent increase in rainfall volumes.[v] These predictions are supported by recent studies that tie climate change to substantially increased rainfall levels and intensities of specific storms, including Hurricanes Harvey and Florence.[vi]  

Hampton Roads, already prone to land subsidence, is also experiencing one of the fastest rates of sea-level rise nationally. As a result, the region already experiences sunny-day flooding of roads and communities on a monthly basis. By 2050, however, Hampton Roads is expected to experience at least one foot of sea-level rise from present-day levels and several more feet of sea-level rise by 2100, with the possibility of as many as eight additional feet.[vii] Mean sea level projections do not account for the impact of high tides, which will begin to inundate and degrade underground chemical and petroleum storage units, for example, before aboveground facilities and infrastructure are swamped by rising seas.

Hurricane storm surge, river flooding, and sea-level rise each pose a present and future threat to industrial facilities and communities in Virginia. Chemical spills can occur when industrial facilities do not adequately prepare for flooding on their property, and the potential harms of industrial spills can extend far beyond the fenceline. A factory might store toxic chemicals in open containers, for example, or packages of powdered pesticides might be lying in storage outdoors. Chemical storage tanks may corrode and spill their hazardous contents when subjected to saltwater during a flood. When floodwaters rise, the flood-induced chemical spill or discharge can contaminate rivers, streams, communities, and neighborhoods downstream, leaving a toxic residue in homes, businesses, and water systems.

The 'Toxic Floodwaters' Methodology

The Center for Progressive Reform, the James River Association, and Chesapeake Commons embarked on this project to develop solutions to river flooding, storm surge, and sea-level rise at industrial facilities throughout some of the most socially vulnerable communities in Virginia.  

Our initial research, detailed in this report, focused on the James River watershed. The watershed is approximately 10,000 square miles and is home to over 2.9 million people.  

The facilities we studied are located in some of the most socially vulnerable census tracts nationally that are within the James River watershed, from the western Highlands to Hampton Roads. The facilities all meet three criteria:

  1. The facilities are situated within census tracts that are in the highest quartile nationally for social vulnerability to disaster, as defined by the Centers for Disease Control’s SVI.
  2. The facilities are regulated by one or more of seven federal and state pollution control programs that likely indicate the presence of toxic substances.
  3. The facilities are vulnerable to flooding, particularly during heavy storms of the sort that will grow more common and more severe as climate change progresses.

The analysis was produced using a novel Geographic Information Systems (GIS) model to identify and prioritize potentially flood-exposed industrial facilities. Our overall conclusion is that 1,095 different facilities are both flood-exposed and potential sources of toxic or hazardous contamination during floods. This report does not, however, assess the likelihood that a spill or discharge will occur at any single facility under a flooding scenario.

Our model relies on projections by federal scientists of present-day risks of river flooding and hurricane storm surge and projections of future sea-level rise in Virginia. It includes only a subset of the total number of industrial facilities in the Commonwealth, focusing on facilities that are regulated under one of seven federal and state programs.  

Social Vulnerability

In recognition of the social dimension of potential harm from chemical exposures, the analysis focuses exclusively upon people living in census tracts in the James River watershed that have been evaluated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as being among the highest-quartile nationally for social vulnerability to disaster.  A census tract on average contains about 4,000 people, though some contain as many as 8,000.  We chose to focus this report on socially vulnerable communities because it is here that the greatest harm is liable to occur in the event of a disaster, just as the greatest harms from Katrina befell the most vulnerable communities in the Gulf Coast region.

Millions of Virginians live and work in communities that are considered socially vulnerable. Social vulnerability is a complex concept. The CDC defines it as a community’s ability to prevent human suffering and financial loss in a disaster, and the CDC explains that social vulnerability is influenced by factors such as poverty, race, and access to transportation.  In the event of climate and chemical disaster, a household without reliable transportation to evacuate may be immobilized in their homes and exposed to toxic contamination from floodwaters. Similarly, low-income or socially isolated households may not be able to afford or have access to temporary housing. They may lack the means to fully remediate contamination in and around their homes, resulting in prolonged exposure to contaminants.  

Identifying Facilities that Threaten Communities

Of the more 17,000 state and federally regulated industrial facilities in the James River watershed, we identified at least 4,500 industrial facilities that are located in communities that are the most socially vulnerable to disaster, based upon national rankings by the CDC. We focused our analysis on 2,726 facilities in these communities that are regulated under seven state and federal programs for toxic and hazardous chemicals:

  • Superfund
  • Clean Air Act’s Risk Management Program
  • Clean Water Act
  • Resource Conservation and Recovery Act
  • Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act
  • Virginia’s Voluntary Remediation Program
  • Virginia’s Registered Petroleum Storage Tank Program

Certain populations, including children and the elderly, are more susceptible to harmful pollution. For example, exposure to contamination may be higher in children, who have more skin surface area per unit of body weight than adults, and in the elderly, who are less mobile than young and middle-aged adults. Historic disinvestment in some communities leaves them without easy access to high-quality health care or other social services to protect their health and aid their recovery from disaster. Finally, for reasons of economics, politics, and racism, some of the communities characterized by social vulnerability are also among the most flood-prone and have some of the highest concentration of industrial facilities, which could result in floodwater contamination at especially high concentrations.

Researchers at the CDC hoping to promote policymaking to address these and other causes of socioeconomic inequality have created a “Social Vulnerability Index” (SVI) that we used in studying the James River watershed. The SVI measures socioeconomic and demographic data to identify census tract-designated communities that are most vulnerable to potential harm from disaster events. For the purposes of our analysis, we identified and prioritized the census tracts with SVI scores among the highest quartile nationally.

A high SVI score suggests that a community would benefit from additional support from government institutions, the social sector, and private industry to support disaster resilience, response, and recovery. The SVI is a useful tool for high-level research, although it fails to capture the capacity of individual community leaders and motivated citizens’ groups to effect change. We use it here as a starting point for a conversation about policy reform and priorities for limiting environmental risks as climate change reshapes Virginia.

Storing or Handling Toxic Chemicals or Substances

To identify flood-exposed industrial facilities in the James River watershed that are likely to use or store toxic and hazardous substances, we created a database of all industrial sites subject to seven different state and federal pollution permitting programs, including Superfund, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act’s Risk Management Program, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, Virginia’s Voluntary Remediation Program, and Virginia’s program for registered petroleum storage tanks. The database includes a range of industrial facilities, including major chemical manufacturers, petroleum and coal importers, wastewater plants, rural agricultural suppliers, contaminated brownfields, and gas stations with underground petroleum storage tanks.

A facility regulated under one or more of these programs is highly likely to be using or storing toxic or hazardous substances (as defined by federal law) or to be a site where these substances were released in the past and still remain. For any individual facility, we did not seek to identify the exact chemical substances at the site, or the nature and amount of these substances; these factors can change over the course of a year. For sites currently subject to regulation for past releases of hazardous substances (such as Superfund sites or the Virginia Voluntary Remediation Program sites), it is possible that some or most of the contamination has already been excavated or contained; however, on-site containment or remediation practices may be vulnerable to flooding episodes. Therefore, a facility’s regulation under one of these seven programs is highly indicative of a facility’s use, storage, or presence of toxic or hazardous substances, but our analysis did not extend to identifying the amount and type of substances at particular facilities. Nor did we assess the construction, layout, or chemical use or storage practices at any of the facilities identified in our analysis.  

Flood-Exposed Facilities

Using this database of regulated facilities, we then identified those exposed to potential flooding by screening the facilities using three criteria: federally designated 100- and 500-year flood-zones; modeled storm surge from Category 1 through 3 hurricanes; and sea-level rise projections of between one and five feet. Flooding from 100- and 500-year storms and hurricane storm surge represent present-day risks of flooding because they could occur in any year in the near future. Sea-level rise, in contrast, represents a future risk of permanent inundation of industrial sites as climate change progresses.




[i] Carter, L., et. al. 2018: Southeast, in Impacts, Risks, and Adaptation in the United States: Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume II [Reidmiller, D.R., et. al. (eds.)]. U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, DC, USA, pp. 743–808. doi: 10.7930/NCA4.2018.CH19

[ii] Id.

[iii] E J Wing, et. al. 2018. Estimates of Present and Future Flood Risk in the Conterminous United States. Environmental Research Letters. 13. 034023. 10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65.

[iv] R. Kleinosky, et. al. 2007. Vulnerability of Hampton Roads, Virginia to Storm-Surge Flooding and Sea-Level Rise. Natural Hazards. 40. 43-70. 10.1007/s11069-006-0004-z.; Baldini, L. M., et. al. 2016. Persistent Northward North Atlantic Tropical Cyclone Track Migration over the Past Five Centuries. Scientific Reports, 6, [37522].

[v] Walsh, K. J., et. al. (2016), Tropical Cyclones and Climate Change. WIREs Clim Change, 7: 65-89. doi:10.1002/wcc.371

[vi] S-Y Simon Wang et. al. 2018. Quantitative Attribution of Climate Effects on Hurricane Harvey’s Extreme Rainfall in Texas. Environ. Res. Lett. 13 054014.

[vii] Boon, J. D., et. al. 2018. Anthropocene Sea Level Change: A History of Recent Trends Observed in the U.S. East, Gulf, and West Coast Regions. Special Report in Applied Marine Science and Ocean Engineering (SRAMSOE) No. 467. Virginia Institute of Marine Science, College of William and Mary.; Sweet, W.V., et. al. 2017: Sea Level Rise, in Climate Science Special Report: Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume I [Wuebbles, D.J., et. al. (eds.)]. U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, DC, USA, pp. 333-363, doi: 10.7930/J0VM49F2.