Report Details the Potential Danger of Toxic Floodwaters

Mar 6, 2019

A map of at-risk sites in the James River watershed
Credit Center for Progressive Reform

In Richmond late last month, the James River flooded to more than 16 feet, its highest since 2010. The state health department closed sections to shellfish harvesting because floodwaters likely contained disease-causing bacteria and viruses.

Now, a new report looks at another danger to communities when the James floods – toxic chemicals and contaminants from industrial areas along the river.

The changing climate is bringing more extreme storms and frequent rains to Virginia. Communities along the James River from the tiny city of Covington down to the industrial cities of Hampton Roads are experiencing increased flooding. But it's industrial areas next to the most vulnerable neighborhoods that concerns David Flores, a policy analyst who co-authored the Center for Progressive Reform report: Toxic Floodwaters.

"Low income communities, minority communities, other communities that are particularly vulnerable to disaster. Especially in and around the Hampton Roads Region and the tidal portion of the James River watershed," says Flores. "We found hundreds of industrial facilities that are exposed to flooding that are likely to use or store hazardous chemicals on-site."

The Hampton Roads region, where flooding is a recurring problem has already been working on climate change adaptation. Under former Defense Secretary James Mattis, military bases there began instituting flood control and adaptation measures and Norfolk created a climate action plan.

Whitney Katchmark manages the water resources program for the Hampton Road District Planning Commission. "We realize there is a lot more work to be done on that front," Katchmark admits. "To date, a lot of the focus has been more on public infrastructure and critical facilities. Across-the-board we're trying to look at all of our infrastructures and hazards and say 'let's not just look at the way things have always been but if there is potential future risk that is greater than let's try to get ahead of the game.'"

We want to use this report to drive change

The report makes recommendations on how communities and state regulators can move forward in helping those people who are less likely to have means of adapting or evacuating during a toxic flood emergency.

"We want to use this report to drive change at the state level and the local level in government and policymaking," David Flores says.

The report also considers flood risks to  petroleum storage tanks and Superfund sites along the James River.  Click here to read the full report

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.