Norfolk Southern permeates its own hometown, Norfolk, Virginia, with coal dust.



Swipe Tests

Why not swipe tests?

A swipe test is simply collecting dust from a surface, then seeing what you have. It is basically what residents of the affected neighborhoods do every time they clean that black stuff off their window sills, porches, lawn furniture, etc., then stare at the grimy mess and think to themselves, coal dust, all right. A swipe test was what happened when dust samples were collected from West Ghent and Lamberts Point addresses in early 2015, then the Sierra Club had them lab analysed — and those samples were found to contain significant amounts of coal dust (much more about that below).

Black grime swiped with a wet paper towel from a single window pane in West Ghent:

Norfolk Southern, coal dust, Pier 6, Lamberts Point

The DEQ refuses to do swipe tests

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality insists on relying only on air monitoring tests. It refuses to do swipe tests of any kind. Two reasons were given for this by Maria Nold, the DEQ's local director: There are no "standards" for swipe tests, plus any coal dust collected could be "legacy dust," coal dust from the past, maybe still lying around since the nineteenth centur, when coal began being hauled through the area.

In other words, the DEQ is perfectly willing to rely solely on Norfolk Southern's own air monitoring data and decide from that that the coal dust in the air is not a problem, even as lots of coal dust continues to "magically" appear on our doorsteps, window sills, yard furniture, cars, etc., etc. Yet the DEQ will not sample that dust. Maybe the DEQ needs to forget about its obsession with Norfolk Southern's questionable air sampling — Norfolk Southern that has gotten its local coal loading facilities exempted from the federal Clean Air Act and has taken advantage of that exemption to keep polluting the air for the past fifty years! Maybe the DEQ should be more concerned about the citizens whose properties that coal dust is appearing at. Maybe the DEQ should take its samples from those properties. After all, is the whole point of the DEQ to serve and protect the citizenry, or is it to convenience big, wealthy corporations like Norfolk Southern.

1) What kind of "standards" does the DEQ need? Simply lay out a flat sheet of clean glass. Check it a month or two or three later. See how much coal dust has collected on it. If that glass is anything like the window panes of West Ghent, there will be a bunch of coal dust. But the DEQ apparently has no standard for what constitutes "a bunch."

2) If the collecting surface is clean at the beginning, then any dust that accumulates on it will have to have been airborne dust — presumably, again, from Norfolk Southern's proven coal dust emitting facilities. Take another look:




Coal Dust Sampling and Testing

Coal dust and debris from a West Ghent attic:


"An abundance" of coal in the dust!

Samples of accumulated dust were collected from five locations, two in the neighborhood of Lamberts Point and three in the neighborhood of West Ghent. All samples came from residential properties in the neighborhoods — from window sills and skylights and siding and louvers — all surfaces located above the ground, not from the soil. Joe Cook, an environmental activist working with the Sierra Club, commissioned Chemoptix Microanalysis to test the samples.

The Chemoptix lab analyzed all the neighborhood samples and compared them with a National Bureau of Standards coal reference standard and a local reference sample (coal found alongside Norfolk Southern's rail line running through the city of Norfolk). The Chemoptix lab found “an abundance” of particles in all the neighborhood samples consistent with coal. These particles were identified by microscopic analysis techniques and by their hydrocarbon fingerprint (using gas chromatography) and percentages of coal by volume in each sample was estimated.

The reason this testing had to be done was that Norfolk Southern has been claiming all along that the coal dust isn't a problem and much of it isn't even coal dust anyway. For example, James A. Hixon, a Norfolk Southern vice president has said, "...a study showed that much of the so-called coal dust actually was material from other sources." Well, now we've done another study, and now we know that much of the "so-called coal dust" really is coal.


Read the Test Reports

Analysis for Presence of Coal

Estimated Percentage of Coal by Volume


Press Release

On April 24, 2015, Joe Cook and the Sierra Club held a press conference next to Norfolk Southern's coal loading favilities to release the results from the lab:

Norfolk Southern, coal dust, Pier 6, Lamberts Point

Dr. Anna Jeng, an environmental health scientist from Old Dominion University who hs performed research and authored a number of professional papers related to water and air pollution, environmental public health tracking, and nanotoxicity., explained the lab analyses:

Video of the Press Release


Test Report Summaries

Micrograph of a Lamberts Point Sample

In this micrograph of one of the Lamberts Point samples, some of the particles with color, luster, and fracture matching coal are indicated with blue arrows:


Gas Chromatogram Comparisons of a West Ghent Sample

The shapes on a gas chromatogram, similar to the lines on a spectrograph or the lines in a DNA test, represent a "fingerprint" of the substance being analyzed, in this case coal:


Reference coal sample (retrieved from a public right of way running parallel to Norfolk Southern railroad tracks)


Sample collected in West Ghent neighborhood — "a very good and reliable pattern match," according to the lab report


Percentages by Volume


Norfolk Southern's Response

From the Virginian-Pilot, May 1, 2015:

"A Norfolk Southern spokeswoman said last week in an emailed statement that those figures also show some of the material is not coal dust. In addition to coal dust, the tests showed the black grit found on homes contained bits of insects, pollen, plant and mineral material and pieces of vehicle tires and belts."

Not 100% coal dust? A huge sigh of relief rose from the dumpers.


Confessions of an Amateur Dust Collector

"As a ten-year resident of West Ghent, I am well familiar with coal dust, which I have often cleaned off my window panes, window sills, porch decks, automobiles, etc. But cleaning the dust off something and collecting it for laboratory analysis are two different things. While the dust is everywhere, it cannot be collected from just anywhere, at least not with the simple collection tools at my disposal.

I would be willing to bet that every roof in the neighborhood is a rich source of coal dust samples, but all the surface area of all those roofs was unavailable to me. Probably the best way to collect dust from the rough surface of roofing shingles would be with a sterile, uncontaminated vacuum system, but I didn't have such a system. All I had were my trusty little razorblade and a small paint brush, and they would only work on hard, smooth surfaces that I could either scrape or whisk the dust from." — RG

Dust collecting tools — simple, but effective, on the surfaces where they would work:

Note: During the dust collecting extremely fine dust could be seen wafting into the air like smoke when I dumped dust scraped up with my razorblade into a plastic baggy or with each stroke when I brushed dust from house siding — very fine particles that did not make it into the sample. The very fine particles that formed this smoke werre so-called PM 2.5 particles (2.5 microns or less in diameter) that when inhaled go deep into the lungs and are so tiny that they even pass from there directlyh into the bloodstream, the most dangerous kind of particulates. It gave me the creeps seeing that smoke. I wished I'd had the sense to wear a respirator. Every little bit of the coal in those particles contained arsenic, lead, mercury, chromium, cadmium, and other neurotoxins and carcinogens.

Read about these fine particles.


West Ghent Sample G-MIC-11343

Accumulated dust was collected with a razorblade from the glass of a skylight. Dust remains on glass of left-hand skylight in this photo. These skylights are located approximately fifteen feet off the ground and on the east-northeast side of the house, and they are inclined about 20 degrees. Their glass panes have been washed once a year.

The incline of this glass may have factored into the relatively high concentration of coal (70%) found in this sample. It has been noted that dark dust, presumably coal dust, tends to cling to glass (not only the inclined glass of these skylights, but vertical glass in the house's windows). Due to the incline, rain may have been more likely to wash other less clingy materials in the dust (pollen, sand, etc.) off of these skylights, leaving behind a higher concentration of coal particles.


Sample collecting paraphernalia:


Typical coal dust grime:

Norfolk Southern, coal dust, Pier 6, Lamberts Point

West Ghent Sample G-MIC-11344

Accumulated dust was swept with a small brush from this vinyl siding located on the west-southwest side of the house. Dust was collected from a swatch of siding approximately four to eight feet above the ground. This siding is hosed off once a year. The pattern of brush strokes from the sample collecting can be seen in this photo:

Norfolk Southern, coal dust, Pier 6, Lamberts Point

West Ghent Sample G-MIC-11345

Accumulated dust was collected with a razorblade from these second-story garage window louvers located on the north-northwest side of the building. These louvers had never been cleaned since they were installed in 2004, ten years before the sample collecting:


These round louvers were made by length cutting 6" diameter PVC pipe. The preponderance of dust was found on their upper, and more nearly horizontal, edges. Since these upper edges are shaded from dust falling straight downward, dust could only have been blown into these areas by a strong-enough wind.

This shading may have factored into the relatively low concentration of coal (20%) found in this sample.


Speaking of the Clinginess of Coal Dust

"I used to own a '91 Ford Aerostar van, an old work van left over from my business that I kept in my retirement for occasional hauling needs. This van remained parked on the street next to my house in West Ghent. I rarely drove it, or washed it. Wheneveer I did wash it, I found that even though it was white, its roof had become permanently gray. Fine black dots seemed to have embedded themselves in the paint. I could scrub the dickens out of that roof with Comet cleanser, but that black stuff just wouldn't all come out." — RG

Alas, one day in 2008 my wife suggested we drive the old van to the Ten Top for dinner. It had been a while since I'd moved the van, and if I didn't drive it every now and then to charge up its battery, it woudn't start when I needed it. So we took off in it, but before we evdn got out of the neighborhood, this ODU student inexplicably crossed into our lane on Princess Anne Road and ploughed right into us. The guy said he was a P.E. major and at the time he was even taking a course so that he could do drivers education! He claimed that he didn't see us coming and he swerved to avoid hitting a kid on a skateboard who, he thought, was about to step out into the street

Anyway, the photo above shows the old van at the repair shop after it was "totalled," according to the insurance company, which didn't want to pay to fix it. I was so shook up by the accident myself, I even forgot to remove the bobble-head Jesus from the dashboard.

Roof of my wife's Prius parked on Old Brandon Avenue in West Ghent, April, 2015:

Norfolk Southern, coal dust, Pier 6, Lamberts Point