In the summer of 1975, the Vietnam War had just ended, the movie Jaws was hitting the big screen — and an environmental catastrophe was unfolding in Hopewell, VA, that would linger for decades in Chesapeake Bay waters.
More than two dozen workers at a plant producing a powdery, white insecticide called Kepone were hospitalized for involuntary tremors, later known as “the Kepone shakes.” These were the first of many troubling symptoms linked to heavy exposure to the chemical, including at least temporary sterility. It has since been classified as a likely carcinogen.
It wasn’t long before investigators found that this same chemical had been discharged for nearly a decade into the James River, where it slowly accumulated in bottom sediments and the tissue of fish all the way to the Bay.
The Kepone disaster, as it came to be known, seized national attention, helped to spur the passage of legislation to regulate toxic chemicals and fueled budding environmental activism in Virginia.
But traces of the insecticide still linger in the river, in fish and in humans, even as some fear the lessons of that era are in danger of being forgotten.
Also known as chlordecone, Kepone is an organochlorine compound that was mostly used in South American and African countries to battle agricultural pests like fire ants and beetles, though some was used in ant and roach traps in the United States. It was also extremely persistent. Like DDT, another widely used pesticide that was banned in the United States in 1972, it can take years, decades even, to break down in the environment.
By late 1975, when the extent and severity of contamination became clear, Virginia Gov. Mills Godwin Jr. closed the James River to commercial fishing from Richmond to the Bay. Recreational anglers were warned not to keep any fish they caught from the river or its tributaries. Fearful consumers shunned any Virginia seafood, regardless of its origin. The ban lasted for 13 years and cost many their incomes and some, their livelihoods.
When news about the disaster was first filtering out of Hopewell, a youthful Dan Rather flew into town to film a segment for the TV news magazine show, 60 Minutes. It didn’t matter that local officials found the reporting an overly dramatic “hit job,” as one researcher put it. Overnight, Hopewell became synonymous with Kepone — a chemical that has proved as persistent in the town’s image as it has been in the environment.
“When you came into Hopewell in those days, there was a sign that greeted you. It said, ‘Welcome to Hopewell, Virginia, the Chemical Capital of the South,” City Manager Mark Haley recalled during a recent visit. “Obviously, after this incident, that got taken down rather quickly.”
The discovery that a company had habitually dumped toxic contaminants into a water body used by many as a source of recreation and food shocked the public. Along with the poisoned workers, it easily ranked as the country’s worst environmental disaster. Love Canal, a neighborhood built atop a leaking toxic dump in New York, would take that title just a few years later. Such landmark pollution events fueled public pressure to rein in the use and disposal of hazardous substances.
“Beginning in the ’60s and ’70s, there was a change among a small but growing number of people who thought the river should be something besides the sewer for cities and industry, and I think Kepone accelerated that effort,” said Greg Wilson, a professor and historian at the University of Akron in Ohio who’s studying the cultural legacy of Kepone.
The Clean Water Act, passed in 1972, had laid the groundwork for curbing pollution, but as problems piled up, lawmakers decided that more was needed. In 1976, Congress passed the Toxics Substances Control Act, which regulates new and existing hazardous chemicals. And, two years later, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency outlawed the production and use of Kepone in the country.
But Kepone had already left a lasting taint in the James, one of the Bay’s largest tributaries. Officials looked at dredging and removing contaminated sediments from the river, but dropped the idea because of its steep price tag, estimated at $2 billion. Plus, experts warned that it could do more harm than good by stirring up buried material. The eventual solution: letting Kepone levels diminish, ever so slowly, as the chemical began to break down and fresh sediment buried much of it on the bottom.
By 1983, the state had spent the more than $5 million allocated to it from a federal settlement with Allied Chemical Corp. over its role in the river’s contamination. That money helped to pay for a new sewage treatment plant in Hopewell and studies to monitor Kepone in the sediment and fish. Though the James did not have a large percentage of Virginia’s fishing industry, the river’s more than decade-long closure and Kepone news impacted sales of all Virginia fish. At one point, the state spent more than $500,000 on a promotional campaign aimed at countering consumer reluctance.
In the decades since, a concerted effort to clean the James has combined with the passing of time to reduce — though not erase — traces of the chemical in the river.
The ‘black eye of Kepone’
Mark Haley didn’t move to Hopewell until 1979, after Kepone had made the town infamous. But the chemical still colored his nearly 40-year career in municipal government, the vast majority of it running the city’s wastewater treatment plant
For years, Haley recalled, Kepone was all that anyone attending national wastewater conferences wanted to talk about when they saw “Hopewell” on his name tag.
“Yeah, that’s us,” Haley said he would respond. “We’ve learned our environmental lesson after that black eye of Kepone.”
As in other East Coast cities, Hopewell’s factories were built on or near the river and its tributaries, which became avenues for both transporting products and disposing of waste. The Appomattox River joins the James there, creating a water body that seems impossibly wide. From the historic peninsula called City Point, a strategic lookout during the Civil War, it’s easy to see why early industrialists thought the river would be big enough to handle anything they threw into it.
“Back in the day, dilution was the solution to pollution,” Haley said.
The city was already at work on building a $46 million wastewater treatment facility when Kepone started making headlines. Before that facility came online in 1977, though, the city had separate, less sophisticated treatment plants for residential and industrial waste. And, five large companies were each required to deal with their own wastewater.
Allied Chemical was one of them. The giant New Jersey-based corporation produced Kepone for eight years without apparent harm to its workers.
But in 1974, Allied contracted with a small company called Life Science Products to make Kepone.
Life Science only made Kepone for 16 months, but the owners’ disregard for basic safety precautions — the company was fined $4 million for its negligence — allowed the pesticide to poison 70 workers and left 29 of them hospitalized. Testing by the state epidemiologist found that the workers’ wives and children also had measurable levels of the chemical in their bloodstreams, as did about 400 Hopewell residents who lived within a half-mile of the plant.
After the workers’ illnesses came to light, investigators also uncovered that Allied’s Hopewell plant had discharged as much as 40,000 pounds of the insecticide into the James.
In the context of the budding environmental movement of the 1970s, Wilson said, the revelation struck all the right chords.
“The public and political reaction to Kepone only became large when the river became the story, even though these workers had been hospitalized,” Wilson said. “It was partly because of the shock that this had been happening for so long and the surprise that this was not just a contractor being negligent but this big, internationally powerful chemical corporation.”
If there is a silver lining to the Kepone disaster, it would be the Virginia Environmental Endowment, which was established 40 years ago this year with funds paid by Allied Chemical to settle lawsuits over its role in the debacle. Of the $13 million the company paid — then the largest fine of its kind — $8 million went to fund the endowment.
The nonprofit grant-making organization, the first foundation in the nation devoted exclusively to funding environmental work, has since helped to launch and support many of the groups and initiatives involved in the river’s cleanup, including the James River Association, Southern Environmental Law Center, Elizabeth River Project and the Virginia work of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and The Nature Conservancy. Nearly $29 million in all has been distributed over the years in more than 1,400 grants, said Joseph Maroon, the endowment’s executive director.
The endowment also has underwritten environmental research, including a grant for the Virginia Institute of Marine Science earlier this year to revisit whether Kepone was still present in James River fish, by conducting tests that hadn’t been done by the state since 2009 because of budget cuts.
Two-thirds of the fish tissue sampled contained traces of the pesticide, said Michael Unger, an associate professor at VIMS and co-author of the report.
“The good news is the concentrations are continuing to decline,” Unger said. “Less heartening is that we’re still measuring Kepone in some of the samples 40 years after the event. It’s still in the system.”
None of the fish tested had contamination levels above the “action limit” set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which would render them unsafe to sell or eat. That said, the state still has a Kepone-related fish advisory in place on the James, recommending that anglers limit consumption of what they catch in the river because of potential lingering residues of the chemical.
Research on the long-term effects of human exposure to Kepone is taking place, too, but mainly in the French West Indies. Even after the insecticide was banned in the United States and France, the French government allowed it to be used in its territories until 1993. It was used for nearly three decades on banana crops in Guadeloupe — and separate studies have found the chemical in the bloodstreams of 88 percent of men and 87 percent of pregnant women. Other research there has detected chlordecone in the cord blood samples of newborns and in the island’s drinking water and soils.
“The net effect is that Martinique and Guadeloupe, which are free from many environmental hazards common in the Western World, have some of the highest prostate cancer rates in the world, as well as other chronic health effects related to Kepone exposure,” wrote Howard Ernst, director of an environmental leadership program at the Eisenhower Institute at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. He recently visited Guadeloupe with a team of students, and penned an op-ed calling for greater government oversight of toxic chemicals.
But in the Bay region — despite its history with Kepone — monitoring and studying toxic pollution still takes a backseat to the focus of the Chesapeake restoration effort on reducing nutrients and sediments. Maroon, who was the Bay Foundation’s first Virginia director long before taking the reins of the environmental endowment, fears that’s shortsighted.
Today, he said, “there are many unknown toxics and contaminants. We have no idea really what their impact will be in the future. There needs to still be strict regulation and monitoring that’s repeated regularly, and that’s something that seems to have fallen off somewhat.”
The Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement added a toxic contaminants workgroup in 2014. That same year, a University of Richmond report found that Virginia lawmakers still weren’t doing enough to protect residents from toxic chemicals. And a 2012 report found Virginia waterways to have the second worst toxic pollution in the nation based on the amount of industrial effluent discharged into them.
A new Hopewell?
Wilson, the historian from Ohio, remembered the Hopewell catastrophe from his childhood growing up nearby in Newport News.
Wilson spent a few months in Hopewell last year to research the enduring impact of Kepone for a fellowship with the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and a future book. He'll present some of his findings in a lecture this fall in Richmond -- where the chemical's legacy includes having a 1990s rock band name itself "Kepone."
“There’s so much to this story,” Wilson said. “It’s about the chemical and what happened, but also about this community and its reputation and the memory we have of this place.”
The squat building that once housed Life Science offices still stands today, transformed into an auto repair shop. From the outside, it looks the same as it did on 60 Minutes, when Dan Rather faced the camera from a gas station across the street and held up a jar of powdery Kepone.
Though some residents are trying to leave its Kepone-riddled past behind, chemical manufacturing is still a key part of Hopewell’s economy and culture. Its industrial corridor includes AdvanSix, the corporate successor of Allied Chemical, as well as a paper mill, an ethanol plant, a steel manufacturer and a coal-fired power station.
And at least one Hopewell resident blames the company and its contemporaries for her poor health. Katherine Podlewski, now 58, said she attributes her breast cancer diagnosis at 33 to exposure to Kepone, though she was not tested for the chemical in her bloodstream at the time.
“I know some of the folks I grew up with who are my age, and they’re dead or their health is really poor, and I attribute that mostly to the environment,” Podlewski said as she stopped by City Hall to complain about air emissions from the local ethanol plant.
Though it’s difficult to isolate any one cause for cancer, Wilson said it’s understandable that some Hopewell residents remain suspicious of large industries in the wake of the Kepone disaster.
“There is some truth to that (suspicion),” he said. “The companies did hide stuff, and they don’t like to release information, so it creates this mistrust that’s supported when something like this happens.”
In Hopewell, industry literally built the city. Dupont bought the land that would become Hopewell for a gunpowder plant at the start of World War I, drawing some 40,000 people to work within its walls. That’s the most that would ever live in the community.
In 1915, a fire decimated the downtown. As locals tell it, the citizens rallied to rebuild within a year — so quickly that a Chicago Tribune headline deemed it “The Wonder City.”
The name fell out of use during the 1960s. But, after celebrating the city’s centennial last year, Hopewell officials are looking to resurrect the old moniker as evidence of a new identity — one that embraces the James River rather than polluting it.
To that end, the city spent $2.5 million revamping its marina on the Appomattox, where Wednesday night concerts now draw crowds. A stormwater project is in the works to reduce silting in the marina, while sprucing up an area near the city’s entrance. Officials also plan a river walk connecting the marina to City Point.
This summer, Hopewell welcomed its first waterfront eatery, an outpost of Richmond’s popular Boathouse Restaurants, complete with a marble-topped bar and a patio overlooking the confluence of the two rivers. Sitting on that patio while lunching recently with the Lower James Riverkeeper, Jamie Brunkow, the city manager spent more time talking about Hopewell’s future than its past.
Brunkow said he’s been thinking about how to use Hopewell’s new nickname, too. (“Isn’t it a pity to pollute the Wonder City?” almost wound up on storm drains, he said, but was too long.) But he also doesn’t want to erase Kepone from the history of Hopewell and the James River.
“We certainly don’t want to keep highlighting what happened here with Kepone,” Brunkow said, “but we also don’t want people to forget.”
(As originally posted, the story misidentified the hometown of University of Akron historian Greg Wilson. He grew up in Newport News, VA. The Bay Journal regrets the error.)