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The Atlantic: This Tiny Fish Can Withstand Almost Anything


“In the 1980s, construction of Interstate 464 divided Money Point and the South Hill neighborhood from the rest of South Norfolk. The city rezoned the area west of the highway as industrial, leaving its residents physically and financially stranded. Due to this rezoning, new houses and additions can’t be built. The residents can’t sell their property, either, since no one will move in. These homeowners, Rieger observed, are no more mobile than the mummichogs.

We knocked on several doors to see if residents would talk about their experiences. No one answered, their doors locked tight against noise, pollution, pandemics, and reporters. South Hill was a thriving neighborhood, Rieger said, until pollution and rezoning starved its life force.

Although no new creosote pollution threatens the river and those who live alongside it, other projects do. Several years ago, Virginia Natural Gas announced the construction of the Southside Connector pipeline. The connector became operational in 2019, linking the region’s existing supply lines and crossing under the Elizabeth River on its eight-mile journey.

The community activist Kim Sudderth worried that the pipeline would not only pose a direct safety threat—its route passed close to an elementary school—but would also imperil the river’s recovery. As the Virginia manager for Mothers Out Front, a group working to fight climate change and environmental racism at the local level, Sudderth knew that low-lying Norfolk’s chronic flooding problem was getting worse because of climate change, and that the floods were already bringing pollution with them.

“Knowing that the water is contaminated—it’s that threat multiplier,” she told me. Flooding could damage her car, or even her home. “And now I might get this awful skin infection through the water,” she says.

Sudderth said she doesn’t need a cancer-ridden bait fish to know that the waters aren’t healthy, but neither she nor anyone else knows much about the specific health threats the pollutants pose. VIMS is funding a community-based environmental-health study in which an interdisciplinary team of scientists—including mummichog researchers—will engage with community members such as Burns and Sudderth, documenting their river-related health concerns and laying the groundwork for a formal study of the pollution’s effects on human health.”

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This Tiny Fish Can Withstand Almost Anything

In Virginia’s Elizabeth River, the unremarkable-looking mummichog has survived decades of industrial pollution-but the price it has paid has worrying implications for human health. Originating in the Great Dismal Swamp of Virginia, just south of the Chesapeake Bay, the Elizabeth River is turbid and brackish, its banks redolent with the nose-wrinkling stench of rotting vegetation.