Last week the James River hit its highest level in nine years with a recorded reading of 16 feet. With an expected increase in future floods and storms caused by climate change, a new report co-authored by an environmental law expert at the University of Richmond identifies flood-exposed communities in the James River watershed that are socially vulnerable to disasters as well as potential chemical contamination from local industrial facilities.  

Toxic Floodwaters: The Threat of Climate-Driven Chemical Disaster in Virginia’s James River Watershed is co-authored by University of Richmond School of Law Professor Noah Sachs and David Flores, an analyst with the Center for Progressive Reform. The report was released today by the Center for Progressive Reform (CPR).   

Sachs and Flores report that more than 473,000 of the 2.9 million people who currently live in the James River watershed are located in communities that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines as socially vulnerable to disaster and that also contain flood-exposed industrial facilities with toxic substances.

“Because of climate change, extreme storms and floods are becoming more likely,” said Sachs. “We identified more than 1,000 flood-exposed industrial facilities in the James River watershed, and contamination from these facilities would be an added burden to these communities, which already lack the infrastructure to rebound after a weather-related disaster.” 

While there have been many studies of the impact of sea-level rise and storm surge in Virginia, this report is the first to document potential impacts on industrial facilities that store or use toxic substances. It is also the first to correlate the location of these facilities with the demographics of nearby communities.

Noting that current Virginia law, regulation, and enforcement are not up to the task of protecting the Commonwealth's most vulnerable residents from toxic floodwaters, the report offers several recommendations for Virginia policymakers. The report also contains an action guide for citizens and advocacy organizations.

"Resiliency and equity should be threaded throughout any work done on climate and toxic floodwaters in the Commonwealth," said Sachs, "Right now, regulation and enforcement in Virginia are lagging on this issue.  We are under-appreciating the real risk."

Sachs is the director of the Robert R. Merhige Jr. Center for Environmental Studies at the University of Richmond and has served as a member scholar at the Center for Progressive Reform in Washington D.C. since 2010.

The full report can be viewed online at http://bit.ly/VAToxicFloods.  

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Professor of Law
Director, Robert R. Merhige Jr. Center for Environmental Studies
Environmental Law and International Environmental Law
Toxic Substances and Hazardous Waste Regulation
Climate Change
Transboundary Pollution