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Scrapbook: Big Coal Dust Victory in Virginia

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May 14, 2009

Big Coal Dust Victory in Virginia

Photo by John Harbison

The Club won a critical victory on April 24 when the Virginia Air Pollution Control Board voted unanimously to support recommendations made by the Sierra Club and the Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards to deal with health-threatening coal dust pollution in Roda, Va.

One member of the board characterized as "shocking" a scientific report prepared and presented by North Carolina State University Professor Viney Aneja on dust exposure levels in Roda. Wise County residents Kathy Selvage and Pete Ramey, who have long suffered the ill effects of mountaintop removal mining and coal dust pollution first-hand, also testified at the hearing.

Selvage and Ramey are pictured in front row, below, at the state capitol in Richmond, where they testified. Center row: Virginia Sierra Club Director Glen Besa, Dr. Viney Aneja, and Megan Gore; back row: Gary Selvage (Kathy's husband) and Adam Wells of Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards.


The Air Board's 6-0 vote directs the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to take immediate steps to deal with coal dust in Roda, which is surrounded on three sides by nine mountaintop removal coal mines. The road running through Roda, pictured at top of post, provides access to all nine mines, and hundreds of coal truck have been known to travel the road in a single day. The trucks release coal dust from their bodies and beds, and track mud onto the road which dries and is kicked up by other trucks.


Roda resident Ronnie Willis is a former coal miner whose house sits barely 20 feet from Roda Road. For several years, he has carefully collected, labeled, and dated bags of coal dust, along with filthy air filters and photographs of coal trucks rolling past his house. Last fall the Sierra Club and Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards installed air monitoring equipment, above, in front of Willis' house and that of his 91-year-old neighbor, Nell Campbell. Below, Willis, Larry Bush, Pete Ramey, and Dr. Aneja installing the equipment.


"When I was there, coal trucks were passing by at a rate of about 10 per minute," says Sierra Club attorney Aaron Isherwood. "Every house in the community is coated with coal dustoutside and inside." The air monitoring devices outside Willis's and Campbell's houses consistently showed dust levels well above the level regarded as safe for human health by the U.S. EPA, with one reading more than three times that level. Additional chemical analysis of dust samples collected by the air monitors revealed the presence of toxic heavy metals associated with coal.

The Air Pollution Control Board's unanimous vote on April 24 directs the Department of Environmental Quality to take immediate action to:

- Convene the state agencies with responsibility (DEQ, the Department of Mines, Minerals & Energy, the Department of Transportation, and the state police), along with the community and the mining companies, to implement measures to reduce dust loads in Roda immediately, including truck washing, rumble strips, speed enforcement, and road improvements.

- Undertake a regional analysis to assess the extent of the coal dust problem in communities similarly situated in proximity to coal mines and impacted by coal trucks.

- Send letters to the Centers for Disease Control and the Virginia Department of Health to request a health assessment of residents in the town of Roda and implications for the region.

The DEQ will install air monitors in Roda in late May to replicate Dr. Aneja's analysis, as well as a neighborhood monitor to get an ambient base reading. The Department of Mines, Minerals & Energy will install a truck tire washing facility.

"This victory couldn't have been achieved without local residents who had the courage to stand up," says Isherwood, who also credits "the tireless work and dedication of Sierra Club environmental justice organizer Bill McCabe, longtime Sierra Club volunteer and attorney John Harbison, and our friends at Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards. Pictured below: McCabe, Isherwood, attorney Walton Morris, Harbison, Larry Bush, and Pete Ramey.

Photo by Emily Ulmer

Learn more about the Sierra Club's work to move beyond coal.


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