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Toxic Floodwaters: The Threat of Climate-Driven Chemical Disaster in the James River Watershed

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Climate Justice Air Chemicals Climate Water

Executive Summary

The James River watershed in Virginia is among the regions of the country most vulnerable to the consequences of climate change. It faces higher than average sea-level rise, intensifying precipitation rates, and increased hurricane risks. As major storms cause serious and potentially toxic flooding in the James River watershed – and elsewhere in the United States – residents are reminded that the industries surrounding them are not doing enough to plan and adapt to our changing world.

In the last two years, extreme rainfall and storm surge from Hurricanes Florence and Harvey flooded industrial facilities ill equipped to handle such massive storms. Contaminants ranging from oil and gas to toxic metals were let loose by floodwaters and spread into the surrounding communities. These discharges may be accurately described as “toxic floodwaters”: storm-induced or climate change-related flooding that carries toxic and hazardous contaminants.

Toxic floodwaters have serious health consequences. After Florence and Harvey, residents in North Carolina and Texas complained of headaches, burning eyes and throats, dizziness, and other health problems. Public health professionals raised concerns about floodwaters leaving a hazardous residue in homes, businesses, water systems, and more.

Such health and environmental risks are amplified by social and legal factors. For example, communities that lack access to reliable transportation and temporary housing are more likely to face prolonged exposure to floodwaters and residual contamination. In this way, social vulnerability interacts with geography and climate to produce a health crisis.

The Commonwealth of Virginia is no stranger to documented toxic floodwater incidents:

More on Toxic Floodwaters

Read Darya Minovi’s 2020 web article, Toxic Floodwaters: Public Health Risks and Vulnerability to Chemical Spills Triggered by Extreme Weather.

Read Noah Sachs and David Flores’ op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, “A Call to Action on the Risk of Toxic Floodwaters in Virginia,” March 14, 2019.

Learn more about CPR’s Toxic Floodwaters work.

  • The Election Day Flood of 1985 resulted in some of the most widespread flooding the state has ever experienced. The flood is also one of the first incidents for which records identify chemical spills and their impacts, such as wastewater overflows in Staunton and Waynesboro and pesticide spills that killed grazing cattle.
  • Hurricane Floyd caused extensive flooding throughout the state in 1999, triggering spills of diesel fuel, toppling chemical storage tanks, and carrying chemical barrels downstream in Franklin County.
  • Intense rainfall in June 2016 resulted in “1,000-year” flooding that caused oil spills in Covington and drowning deaths in neighboring West Virginia.
  • Later that same year, storm surge from Hurricane Matthew washed away parts of a public landfill in Virginia Beach. A similar event occurred in 2011 when storm surge from Hurricane Irene washed a landfill into the Elizabeth River. Heavy precipitation contributed to widespread wastewater overflows throughout the Hampton Roads region.

Virginia has always been vulnerable to hurricane storm surge, river flooding, and sea-level rise. But no one has conducted a comprehensive examination of the threat that storms and flooding pose to the vulnerable, fenceline communities surrounding hazardous chemical storage sites throughout the Commonwealth. Once toxic chemicals or other hazardous substances spill into floodwaters, there is very little time to react before they pose a serious public health threat.

That is the challenge this report takes up: providing the first comprehensive analysis of the threat of toxic floodwaters to Virginia’s environmental justice communities that are among the most socially vulnerable to natural and human disasters. In addition to examining the threats, this report outlines existing legal tools that these communities can use to demand better protections from climate-driven chemical disasters.In 1999, flooding from Hurricane Floyd toppled storage tanks and carried away oil drums, resulting in floodwater contamination in Franklin, Virginia. Credit: Liz Roll/FEMA News Photo.

This report is the culmination of a three-year partnership between the Center for Progressive Reform, the James River Association, and Chesapeake Commons.  This report focuses specifically on threats to communities identified by the federal government as high in social vulnerability to disaster.  It should be noted, however, that there are also flood-exposed facilities storing toxic chemicals that pose risk to people of all socioeconomic backgrounds in the James River watershed.

We used a three-part methodology to prepare this report:

First, we identified all industrial facilities in the watershed likely to handle toxic and hazardous substances – those regulated under seven different state and federal pollution programs that specifically target hazardous chemicals.

Second, we created a novel geospatial model to map how these industrial facilities are exposed to potential flooding. To explore the flooding scenarios, we used environmental data for river flooding, storm surge, and sea-level rise from two federal agencies with expertise in the area, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Finally, we added information on social vulnerability to disaster for communities living near these facilities. For this part of our research, we relied upon data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Social Vulnerability Index (SVI) to identify the census tracts that are in the highest quartile nationally for social vulnerability to disaster events. The Index integrates U.S. Census data for 15 social, economic, and demographic metrics that together measure vulnerability to disaster. For example, the index includes metrics for vehicle access, crowded housing, age, education, English language usage, household income, and federal poverty status. Taken together, our analysis is the first step in understanding the health risk to the most vulnerable Virginians from the potential hazard of flood-driven chemical spills.

Our key findings are:

  • More than 2,700 industrial facilities regulated by federal and state programs for toxic and hazardous chemicals are located in the most socially vulnerable census tracts in the James River watershed. We found that more than 1,000 of these facilities are exposed to potential river flooding, hurricane storm surge, and/or projected sea-level rise.
  • In the tidal region of the James River, from Hampton Roads upriver to Richmond, 234 facilities regulated for hazardous or toxic substances would be flooded by future sea-level rise between one and five feet. Moreover, 91 of these facilities would be flooded by just one foot of sea-level rise, which climate scientists expect to occur no later than 2050.
  • Flood-exposed industrial facilities in Virginia are regularly using and storing toxic and hazardous substances dangerous to human health, should the chemicals be carried off in floodwaters. The facilities we identified include everything from gas stations and agricultural suppliers to contaminated brownfields, chemical manufacturers, and major port facilities. The hazardous chemicals we identified include toxic metals, carcinogenic and flammable petroleum products, solvents, corrosive acids, coal ash waste, and pesticides. In some cases, these substances are stored securely, under cover with various monitored controls. In other cases, these substances are exposed to the elements with few controls, and some have already contaminated soil and water.
  • Of the census tracts in the James River watershed that rank in the highest quartile for social vulnerability to disaster in the United States, as determined by the CDC’s Social Vulnerability Index, 125 tracts contain at least one flood-exposed industrial facility. Many contain more. On average, these socially vulnerable census tracts each contain 25 flood-exposed industrial facilities.
  • More than 473,000 Virginians live in the 125 census-tract designated communities that are both high in social vulnerability and contain flood-exposed industrial facilities. These residents are most at risk from toxic floodwaters. The 473,000 figure means that nearly 1 out of 6 people who live in the James River watershed live in these vulnerable census tracts.  Virginians who attend school or work in these communities are also at risk.
  • The Hampton Roads region of the James River watershed is especially vulnerable to potential climate-driven chemical disasters, accounting for more than half of the census tracts identified by our analysis as at-risk. However, flood-exposed facilities and highly vulnerable communities are also located in central and western portions of the Commonwealth, in both urban and rural communities.

Whose Responsibility?

Facility owners and operators should bear most of the burden of preventing toxic floodwaters, and state and federal environmental regulators should hold companies accountable for their actions. We have focused on industrial facilities regulated under seven different state and federal programs that require industrial facilities to take measures to prevent, mitigate, and respond to chemical spills. For the most part, Virginia regulators at the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) are responsible for enforcing these laws and addressing the threat from toxic floodwaters. Virginia residents also have a role to play in holding facility operators accountable when they violate the law and by pressing state regulators to enforce the law.

Unfortunately, our careful examination leads to the inescapable conclusion that Virginia is simply not prepared to prevent or respond to toxic floodwaters. Our research and analysis show that lawmakers and regulators in the Commonwealth have not effectively addressed flooding risks at industrial facilities – risks that are growing due to climate change. Commonwealth residents face the potential for widespread pollution spills like the spills in Texas and North Carolina. Furthermore, without disaster planning and resources specifically focused on protecting these communities, it may take weeks, months, or even years to remediate toxic floodwater contamination in homes, schools, and businesses.

Virginia’s lawmakers and regulators must act to address the threat of toxic floodwaters, focusing on the most vulnerable communities first.


Our key policy recommendations are:

  • Virginia’s environmental regulators should utilize existing authority under state and federal law to prevent and mitigate climate-driven chemical disasters at industrial facilities. For example, the Virginia DEQ should investigate whether a facility’s pollution or spill-prevention plan, required under the Clean Water Act or the Clean Air Act’s Risk Management Program, accurately and adequately considers the risks of site flooding. Similarly, DEQ should ensure that risk assessment and remediation plans submitted by brownfields redevelopers under state law are responsive to the potential risk that contamination could spread off-site due to a flood. DEQ should prioritize inspection and enforcement efforts in the most socially vulnerable Virginia communities.
  • Virginia's environmental regulators should also improve public access to information about potential chemical hazards. In particular, Virginia DEQ is required by state and federal laws to publicly disclose information about facilities that store hazardous chemicals and designated "extremely hazardous substances."
  • Virginia regulators should ensure that facilities comply with hazardous chemical reporting requirements. Facilities must share reporting data with regulators and with local first responders and emergency planners in accordance with federal law.
  • The Virginia General Assembly recently passed legislation that strengthens requirements for coal ash waste disposal by mandating the removal of 21 million tons of ash from vulnerable ponds beside the James and Elizabeth Rivers. However, the law and applicable state regulations fall short of preventing disposal of coal ash waste in flood-exposed landfills. Virginia regulators and policymakers should ensure the coal ash is disposed and contained within landfills that are not exposed to present-day flood risks or to future risk from sea-level rise.
  • Virginia lawmakers should establish a new program creating siting, construction, and monitoring standards for above-ground chemical storage tanks. These significant hazards are currently unregulated under state law. The regulatory program should build on existing regulations for petroleum storage tanks and should include requirements for spill prevention and control that are responsive to potential flood damage. The program should require new aboveground chemical and oil storage tanks in flood-exposed areas to be elevated at least four feet off the ground.   West Virginia offers a potential model.  There, a 2014 spill from an unregulated chemical tank near Charleston left some 300,000 residents without access to drinking water. In response, the state adopted a regulatory program for unregulated chemical tanks.

Finally, Virginia’s General Assembly and Governor should establish and fund a task force to recommend policy reforms addressing climate impacts on pollution permitting and regulatory design. The task force should issue criteria for deploying resilience and disaster-response funding to the most vulnerable populations in the Commonwealth, with the aim of mitigating the risk of harm from climate-driven chemical disasters. Such a task force would also create an opportunity for the Commonwealth’s philanthropic community to contribute by making new investments in community-based organizations that have the expertise and ability to hold industrial facilities and regulators accountable. 


Climate Justice Air Chemicals Climate Water