Health of the River

Health of the Shenandoah River

The South Fork of the Shenandoah River remains amazingly healthy and environmentally diverse considering the abuse it has sustained over the past couple of centuries. In the nineteenth century the Valley was pretty well denuded of its forest cover to supply fuel for the local iron industry. Tree bark was heavily harvested to supply tannin for the many tanneries that sprung up in the valley. To add insult to injury, a blight killed off all the dominant chestnut trees in the early twentieth century. The fortuitous establishment of Shenandoah National Park and George Washington National Forest in the first half of the twentieth century has allowed vast clear-cut areas to be re-forested.

During the twentieth century the industrial impact on the river was significant. From 1927 to 1950 significant quantities of mercury were discharged into the river by a Dupont plant in Waynesboro. The mercury has extended along the whole length of the river and worked its way into the fish population (which is why a health advisory on consumption of fish from the river remains in effect).

There is no economic or environmentally viable way to remove the mercury from the river, so, by current projections there it will remain for the next ten thousand years or so. Another example of industrial malfeasance would be the Avtex plant in Front Royal, once the largest rayon plant in the world employing over 2,700. Vast quantities of zinc and other waste were discharged into the river over its fifty-year existence. In 1989 the documented dumping of PCB’s into the river forced its closure by the state, and its nomination as an EPA superfund site. A twenty year hundred million dollar clean up at the old Avtex site is almost complete, so progress by some measure on the industrial front is being made.

In 2008 the Shenandoah River was listed by the American Rivers organization and one of the ten most threatened rivers in the nation because of development pressure. So threats to river health are on going, but there is hope. Today there is much more awareness of environmental issues. Listed below are three outstanding river conservation organizations we would encourage you to join and support:

It is amazing how vibrant the South Fork of the Shenandoah River is today, but it is going to take some effort and attention to keep it that way. Let’s work together to keep the Shenandoah River healthy and environmentally sound!