Last December, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced a $50 million settlement between the state, federal officials and DuPont to fix decades of mercury contamination in two rivers caused by the giant chemical corporation’s former factory in Waynesboro.
But six months later, some city officials and residents say they feel Waynesboro is in danger of getting short shrift in the landmark settlement because most of the funds are earmarked for environmental remediation work up and down the river from the community, even though it was “ground zero” for the toxic pollution.
The settlement — the largest natural resource damage reimbursement in Virginia’s history — is awaiting final approval by the U.S. District Court of Western Virginia. As it now stands, $42 million would go to federal and state environmental agencies, which will undertake projects aimed at compensating for “losses in ecological and recreational services, such as fishing access” along the South River. The remainder of the settlement is planned to upgrade a state-run smallmouth bass hatchery downstream in Front Royal.
The announcement seemed to herald the turning point in a long environmental disaster.
From 1929 to 1950, DuPont manufactured the world’s first synthetic fabric, rayon, at its Waynesboro plant. The company used mercury and drained its waste into the South River. The highly toxic metal was discovered lingering in nearby soils in 1976. The next year, the Virginia Department of Health warned the public not to eat any fish from the South River, the South Fork Shenandoah River and part of the main Shenandoah River channel all the way to Front Royal. After further study, the fish consumption ban was eased a few years later to an advisory to limit eating potentially tainted fish.
Waynesboro’s stretch of the South River, a tributary of the Shenandoah River, is regionally famous for its fishing, with people traveling all the way from Richmond to wade in the shallow, fast-moving water or cast their lines from the banks. Fishing was an important part of Waynesboro’s cultural identity, and it was crushing news for residents and visitors alike when the mercury contamination was announced.
Mercury pollution is an extremely serious health concern. Through the process of bioaccumulation, aquatic species concentrate mercury in their bodies, often in the form of methylmercury, a highly toxic organic compound. Larger fish eat smaller ones, and in turn are targeted by even larger fish, thus moving greater and greater concentrations of mercury up the food chain and eventually to people who consume these fish. Mercury ingestion at sufficient qualities or over extended periods can result in damage to the brain, kidneys, lungs and neurological system.
The DuPont settlement, in the form of a consent decree, proposes a series of measures to restore wildlife habitat and enhance fishing and boating along the river, including streamside plantings for erosion control, stormwater pond improvements and the propagation of freshwater mussels for release. The settlement also earmarks funds for the renovation of the Front Royal Fish Hatchery for breeding smallmouth bass.
While the DuPont settlement proposes to restore fishing in the river, not everyone is pleased with how or where that will be done. As written, the agreement guarantees the city — not itself a formal party to the settlement — with practically nothing in compensation. While $38 million of the settlement is reserved for projects to restore habitat, wildlife and recreation along the river, to get any of that the city will have to apply to the “natural resource trustees,” state and federal officials charged with deciding how and where the money is to be spent.
That irked Waynesboro officials, who complained shortly after the settlement was announced that the community most affected by the contamination is promised “zero restoration, zero set-aside funding, zero set-aside signature project(s), and zero guarantee of ever receiving anything more than zero benefit of the proposed restoration settlement funds.”
“We believe ground zero being included is critical,” Vice Mayor Terry Short said in January, the Staunton News Leader reported. “It would be outrageous if it’s not.” He called the failure to accord a significant amount of funds to the city a “significant mistake” in the DuPont settlement.
Since then, though still worried that Waynesboro could get slighted, officials have dialed back their complaints.
City Manager Michael Hemp said, “We were disappointed with some aspects of the settlement that were specific to Waynesboro, but we endorsed the rest of the plan and the consent decree.” He added that he senses “an optimism within our community” about the proposed wildlife habitat improvements.
But Tom Langhorne, co-owner of the South River Fly Shop, has repeatedly voiced his opposition to the settlement in its current version. He calls it “farcical” to spend up to $10 million renovating the Front Royal fish hatchery, located many miles downstream. Among paying fly-fishing clients, trout are generally considered preferable to bass, though most of the trout stocked in the South River are nonnative browns and rainbows.
Langhorne also contends that free river access sites for anglers proposed in the remediation plan are “few and far between.”
While DuPont’s settlement with the state currently includes no direct funding for Waynesboro itself, company spokesman Mike Liberati said the remediation planned for the South River would help the city. The riverbanks in the city are the first of several to be remediated, Liberati said, with the objective of “significantly decreasing” the mercury erosion into the river.
“The majority of the (contaminated) riverbanks will be capped,” the DuPont spokesman said. “The soil in areas with the highest levels of mercury will be excavated and disposed of properly prior to capping.”
The South River Science Team, a DuPont-sponsored collaboration between scientists representing the company, governmental agencies including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and local environmental groups, has directed the remediation done so far and what’s planned under the settlement.
The Virginia Department of Health, part of the science team, advises people to eat no fish other than stocked trout from the South River and no more than one pound per month of any fish from the South Fork of the Shenandoah. “Women who are pregnant or may become pregnant, nursing mothers, and young children should not eat fish from these waters,” the team’s website recommends. The problem with this advisory, according to Kevin Little, the South River Fly Shop’s other owner, is that the average angler can’t tell the difference between a potentially contaminated adult fish that has matured in the river from a nontoxic, stocked newcomer.
Paul Bugas, a fisheries biologist with the state Department of Game & Inland Fisheries, says it’s possible that some fish caught outside the contaminated area could still be carrying mercury in their tissues. Because the fish swim both up and downstream, non-stocked game fish could reach catching size in contaminated areas, then swim upstream into waters where there is no fish advisory cautioning anglers to limit their consumption.
But according to Calvin Jordan, a scientist with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, there is little reason to fear eating these trout, whether freshly stocked or longer-term river residents. While fish sampled upstream of the old DuPont plant discharge pipe have been found to have traces of mercury in them, the DEQ has never found fish either within or outside the known contaminated area with mercury levels high enough to trigger even stricter consumption warnings.
Jordan said he has mapped out a cleanup strategy for the South River in increments, beginning with the area just downstream of the former DuPont factory. The first stretch is the most heavily contaminated.
“Addressing that mile of riverbank should reduce the loading of mercury from the riverbanks to that two-mile section of river by 90 percent,” Jordan said. “Reducing the loading from the banks should eventually reduce the amount of mercury in the river sediments.”
A public hearing on the terms of the consent decree was held by the federal district court June 2 in Harrisonburg, to help the court determine whether the settlement is “fair, adequate, and reasonable and is not illegal, the product of collusion, or against the public interest.” Judge Michael F. Urbanski heard comments regarding the amount of the current settlement, the expenditure on mussel restoration, the settlement’s impact on the Waynesboro area, and the funding of the Front Royal fish hatchery for smallmouth bass and other species versus a trout grow-out facility in Waynesboro.
The complete removal of all mercury contamination from the South River is unlikely to occur for many years, if ever. For the DEQ’s Jordan, there is a personal as well as a professional interest in the South River’s tenuous, piecemeal recovery.
“My kids and I fish in that river all the time. I’m not just a regulator,” he said. Jordan said that the South River, despite its problems, “is already a great resource. The use of the river is on the rise, with more people using the greenway, boating and fishing.”
But he’s also a realist. “I’m trying to be optimistic,” he added, “but sometimes that’s pretty tough. My 10-year-old son always asks me, ‘Daddy, why can’t we eat the fish we catch here?’”