A federal judge has approved a deal requiring the chemical company DuPont to pay $50 million for decades of mercury pollution of Virginia’s South River, finalizing the largest natural resources settlement in state history.

However, U.S. District Court Judge Michael Urbanski did not specify how much, if any, of the $42.1 million earmarked in the settlement for restoration projects ought to be spent in Waynesboro, where DuPont’s polluting factory operated. 

Some officials and citizens of the Shenandoah Valley city, through which the South River flows, had complained they felt slighted by the terms of the proposed settlement when it was unveiled earlier this year. They contended that because Waynesboro was “ground zero” of the river contamination, the deal should have directed that a significant portion of the damages to be paid be spent in the community.

In his July 28 decision, Urbanski didn’t require any specific expenditures in the city, declaring that the terms of the agreement are such that the trustees — a bevy of federal and state environmental agencies — “have pledged to fully assess restoration activities directed at Waynesboro.”

The way forward will consist of numerous engineering and ecological projects along and within the river, as well as an upgrade to a state-run smallmouth bass hatchery downstream in Front Royal.

The trustees are “finalizing procedures for project evaluation and implementation,” according to Anne Condon of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

A series of stakeholder meetings are planned, with information on dates and locations being set. The federal wildlife service has a website on which citizens can find out where and when these meetings will take place.

The river’s much-anticipated restoration will take time; several years at least, to cleanse the soil and water of the highly toxic mercury that has prompted state officials to post warnings on eating locally caught fish. The Virginia Department of Health currently advises people not to eat fish other than hatchery-raised stocked trout from the South River and no more than one pound per month of any fish from the South Fork of the Shenandoah. The South River Science Team, composed of scientists with DuPont, state and federal agencies and local environmental groups, has posted on its website that “Women who are pregnant or may become pregnant, nursing mothers, and young children should not eat fish from these waters.”

Local officials and others hope that as restoration projects reduce lingering contamination, the settlement will boost Waynesboro’s sport fishing industry —professional guides, tackle shops, boat rentals, hotels and restaurants — which even now attracts thousands of anglers from across the state. Swimming, wading and paddling the river are also expected to increase as the residual threat of mercury is slowly dispelled.