After 20 years, Kepone still a part of river life

Twenty years after state officials shut down a Hopewell chemical factory linked to what would become one of Virginia’s worst environmental disasters, the pesticide known as Kepone retains its hold on the James River.

Most of the Kepone that was flushed into the James River 20 to 30 years ago is still there. It is also still found in fish in the river, though mostly at levels considered safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Yet the state Health Department still advises against eating large amounts of fish from the river.

“It’s becoming more and more dormant, but Kepone is not going to go away,” said environmental chemist Michael Unger.

After several workers became sick, the state closed the Hopewell factory on July 24, 1975. Less than five months later, officials also shut down the James River to fishing.

They had learned that Kepone had routinely been flushed down storm drains and through Hopewell’s sewage treatment plant.

In the years that followed, the companies that produced Kepone lost millions of dollars in fines and court settlements. In addition, government spent millions testing people and the environment.

Meanwhile, fishermen and the businesses that catered to them lost millions of dollars during the ban on fishing, which was not fully lifted until 1988.

The state Department of Environmental Quality still tests for Kepone. This year, DEQ will collect 288 fish of various species from the river and measure the amount of Kepone in their flesh.

The Kepone monitoring program has been scaled back since the late 1970s.

In 1981, the state stopped testing the water because Kepone levels had fallen so low. Last year, it stopped testing the river bottom after years of results showed the Kepone was not moving around, said Louis Seivard, manager of the monitoring program.

But the state continues to test fish. On average, the Kepone levels in James River fish have been below the government’s safety level for years. But every now and then, the DEQ finds a fish that nears or exceeds the limit.

The Kepone that made its way into the James was a powder. Because it did not easily dissolve in water, much of it settled into the sediment, where it is undetectable by sight or touch.

“You wouldn’t know you were in it,” said Morris Roberts Jr., head of the environmental sciences department at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

Like other pesticides of its kind, Kepone was designed to be very stable chemically. The Kepone in the James may break down into less harmful chemicals some day, but VIMS scientists don’t expect that to happen soon.

In the meantime, the Kepone on the river bottom has gradually been covered by silt and sediment. The reason Kepone levels in fish have been steadily declining is that there is less of the insecticide in the water or on the river bottom for fish to absorb through their gills or ingest in food.

The risk remains that the buried Kepone will be stirred up again, either by a strong hurricane or by dredging. Avoiding Kepone is now an element of every dredging project between Hopewell and the Bay.

In the late 1970s, the EPA explored ways of ensuring that Kepone stayed out of the river’s food chain. Ranging from massive dredging to covering the most seriously polluted sections of the river bottom with concrete, each strategy was very expensive, damaging to the environment or both, Seivard said.

State and federal officials decided to let nature take its course and wait until all the Kepone is buried in the sediment or breaks down. Until then, the state will continue to test the river’s fish.

Scientists lose manatee off Connecticut coast

Marine biologists lost track of a wayward manatee on a history-making odyssey along the East Coast when a radio transmitter tethered to the animal fell off.

The 1,200-pound sea cow, nicknamed Chessie, headed north from Florida two months ago and was last seen along the shore of Connecticut’s Long Island Sound, after it apparently reversed direction to warmer waters.

Scientists said the transmitter was recovered off the coast of New Haven after the manatee lost the radio buoy on Aug. 22. Now biologists don’t know exactly where he is. “Sure, it’s disappointing,” said Jim Reid, with the National Biological Service. “Yet overall, I’m real happy that we were able to successfully track his movements north through 11 states.”

Diana Weaver, spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said Chessie sightings by people off the coast will now be the only way to pinpoint his locale. Manatees are an endangered species.

The buoy had been transmitting Chessie’s latitude and longitude to experts studying his unusual migration some 2,000 miles north of Florida.

Chessie made history in August when he became the first of his species known to reach New England. At Point Judith, R.I., he turned around, traveling 90 miles southwest before losing the transmitter, giving trackers hope that he’s headed home.

Reid held out hope that Chessie would be spotted again. “It may be the close of one chapter, but it’s not the end,” he said.

Groups worry about metal discharge rule changes

Recently revised state standards will allow the discharge of more metals into Pennsylvania waterways, putting the health of aquatic life at risk, environmental groups argue. But the state said increases resulting from its new measurement standards will be small, comply with federal standards and be well within safe limits for human health.

The Sierra Club, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service all have reservations about the change announced Aug. 21 by the Department of Environmental Protection. “This is a weakening of environmental protection,” said Jeff Schmidt of the Sierra Club.

Under the old standard, regulators would measure the amount of arsenic, lead, mercury, silver and other metals dissolved in the water, plus whatever undissolved particles settled into sediment. The revised standard is based only on the dissolved amount of the metals in water.

By not taking into account the rest of the metal, environmentalists say, the state will be letting businesses dump more metal into the water, potentially jeopardizing the health of humans and aquatic life.

James M. Seif, secretary for environmental protection, said the change was based on sound science and common sense. It will reduce costs for both industry and government waste water treatment agencies without jeopardizing the environment, he said.

“We’re very happy,” said Diane Bosak, government affairs associate with the Pennsylvania League of Cities and Municipalities, which had worked for the change. The old standard is “harsh and extreme” and the change will mean significant savings in not having to reach “a virtually impossible level,” she said.

Seif also said the dissolved state more accurately reflects the potential harm the metals may have on aquatic life. The change was based on those already made by the federal EPA, he said. Minimum levels of the metals for human health are much higher than for aquatic life, sometimes as much as 100 times higher, said Carol Young, an environmental chemist with the DEP.

Barbara L. Kooser, environmental scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said that with the change, Pennsylvania was taking a very narrow view of what is being discharged.

By looking only at the dissolved state of the metals, the state will be ignoring what is going into the sediment in stream beds, she said. Changes in other contaminants and stream flow all can force some of the metals out of the sediment and into the water, she said. The state should not make the change until criteria for metals in sediment is adopted as well, she said.

Standards for metals in sediment are still being studied and are far from being adopted, said Ted Clista, chief of the DEP’s surface water quality section.

VMRC proposes shortened oyster season

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission proposed Aug. 22 to cut the 1995-96 oyster season in the James River from seven to three months because of damage done by fresh water from summer floods. The commission also proposed maintaining an oystering ban in the Bay and all other rivers because of continued poor oyster populations.

A 5-mile stretch of the James River was the only place in Virginia west of the Eastern Shore last year to have a public oyster season.

Commission members said they are reluctant to allow oystering at all this year in the James. Suggesting to oystermen that the season will definitely last from Oct. 1 through April 30 would be irresponsible, said commission member Jane Webb of Newport News.

The commission will make a decision about the oyster season after a Sept. 26 public hearing.

Before the flood, restrictions on oyster harvests were showing some results in the James, said Jim Wesson, the commission’s oyster conservation and replenishment officer. Last year’s market oyster harvest of 17,686 bushels was more than triple the previous year’s total, while the number of seed oysters — immature oysters taken to private grounds to mature — rose by 62 percent to 122,575 bushels.

But the population suffered a significant setback in June after flooding in central Virginia pushed fresh water into normally salty sections of the river. State regulators won’t know exactly how much damage the fresh water did until they finish a fall survey in December.

The commission has proposed that the James be opened to oystering on Oct. 1, the same day as last year. Instead of allowing the season to continue through April 30, as it did last year, the commission proposed ending the season on Dec. 31.