During the nineteenth and most of the twentieth century a number of large, heavy industrial plants were located along the Shenandoah River. During most of that period the prevailing attitude was, “dilution is the solution to pollution”, so most of the liquid waste was simply dumped into the river with minimal processing. Won’t the river just carry it away out of site and eventually disperse it? Well, yes and no.
Example #1: In 1977 an expansion was being done on the established DuPont plant in Waynesboro, Virginia located on the South River, a tributary of the South Fork of the Shenandoah River. During excavation workers noticed a silvery liquid pooling in the soil as they dug. Testing revealed it was mercury, a liquid metal highly toxic to humans. We are all familiar with the Mad Hatter character from Alice in Wonderland. Back when it was written, people who worked in the hat industry did tend to go “ mad” as a result of the use of mercury to cure beaver pelts used in fashionable hats of the day. Mercury poisoning affects the nervous system in humans.
To DuPont’s credit the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality was notified and further investigation ensued. It was discovered Mercury had been used in the plant and the waste discharged into the river on a regular basis from 1927 until 1950. Why hadn’t the river carried it away? Well, it’s simple, mercury is heavier than water and it just settled into and mixed with the sediment on the bottom of the river. In testing, the fish were found to contain significant levels of mercury in their flesh, all the way from the DuPont plant down the river for thirty miles to the river’s confluence with the North River and Middle River which forms the South Fork of the Shenandoah River.
After two massive flood events in 1985 and 1996 further testing was done on the fish population in 1999. Not only had the mercury levels increased, but the contamination to the fish had extended downstream for another 30 miles. It seems the mercury was working it’s way down the river and up through the food chain concentrating in the fish. Today, there is an advisory against eating fish out of the river which extends the whole length of the South River and the South Fork of the Shenandoah River, a distance of 130 miles. DuPont eventually paid a $50 million penalty to be used for river improvement projects, but there was no way to mitigate the damage already done. Prognosis; this is a legacy issue that will continue to haunt us for hundreds of years, perhaps a millennium or more. Dilution is NOT the solution to pollution.
Example #2: In the late 1980’s random testing of fish in the Shenandoah River revealed high levels of PCBs in their flesh from Front Royal down. Further testing of the sediment in the river pointed directly to the wastewater outfall of Avtex Fibers, the one time largest rayon plant in the world employing up to 3,000 workers. The owners of the plant were full of denial, so the Virginia Attorney General shut them down for environmental reasons. There was a lot of finger pointing, but the fact is, the PCB problems in the river persist to this day. FMC Corporation, a previous owner of the plant, eventually paid a significant share of the $140 million to rehabilitate the site along with help from the government’s environmental Super Fund.
Now here’s the back story from my local sources: The plant was in very poor condition and was being run into the ground, eking out production with virtually no maintenance. A number of old electrical transformers were being loaded on to rail cars, but were too heavy for the crane to lift them, so to make them lighter the foreman instructed the workers to drain the PCB oils into buckets and pour them on to the railroad tracks. And thus, a new environmental legacy was born.
In 1971 the Environmental Protection Agency was established, and in 1972 congress passed the Clean Water Act, but today these measures are under threat, and one wonders what other environmental legacies await.