In River Time: The Way of the James


In the year 1957 over a million Americans returned to Jamestown to celebrate their river roots. Long deserted, with its banks slowly eroding into the rising river, the island was again brought out of a wild state. Instead of colonial houses, it now boasted a National Park Service visitors center, a restored church, a scenic drive, a working reproduction of the 1608 glasshouse, and a romantic statue of Pocahontas. Nearby a privately owned Festival Park was erected on the river bank, with historical exhibits and replicas of the three tiny ships, the first English fort, and Powhatan's lodge joining the images of the earliest river warfare. Scholars took this occasion to explore colonial history and archaeology in a symposium and in numerous publications. The river's past suddenly took on new life.

This celebration of the dreams and assumptions that had helped shape the river's destiny also marked a crucial turning point in our story, for a long era of taking the river for granted was coming to an end. For three and a half centuries of living with the James, Virginians who paid any attention to the river still saw it as little more than the visible flow of water between two banks, which could be directed and used in many profitable ways, even if it could not always be controlled. Sometimes they were reminded of their dependence on its natural processes, especially when their water supply was disrupted by flood or drought. Public access was still not open on much of this river, which was reputed to be filthy anyhow, so the James had become easy for most people to ignore. What would happen in the next twenty-five years would make people take a closer look at the attitudes toward rivers set down long ago, and to begin to realize that perpetuating those patterns could imperil the health of both the river and its people.

There were unheralded signs that long-term problems were finally being recognized. In 1958, the city of Richmond began operating a primary sewage (or "wastewater") treatment plant on the south bank below the Falls, not very sophisticated or effective but the first such facility on the river. Nearby, Newton Ancarrow had recently settled his business of building fast and luxurious runabout boats. He was already angry about what he was seeing in the river, and he was not one to keep quiet. As he tells it, "All my life I'd been told that the James River was dirty, just stay away from it. I accepted that. I could stand a little mud. I had no damn idea! I was so naive that I would not believe that anybody would do that to a river. I saw times after a rain when the surface of the river was 90 percent floating raw sewage-- and smelled it. But I knew it was illegal to discharge sewage into the water, so I assumed it would be cleaned up." As Ancarrow jokes wryly, "They named that river after the wrong king. They should have named it after King John, because it surely is the john river."

Ancarrow might have seemed an unlikely candidate to be a pioneering environmental activist. An engineer, he had spent several years working at Experiment Incorporated downstream, scarcely noticing the careless disposal of powerful chemical wastes into the river. Like most Richmonders, he liked to spend his summers on the river, not the James but the cleaner Rappahannock. But he could not ignore the six inches of raw sewage and thick black oil that coated his boat ramp just before his grand opening, or the fact that boats could be launched only on the few days when the river was relatively clean so that the paint would be neither stained or stripped off. Cleaning the river became his passion, and he took his slide show of sewage and wildflowers (eventually he catalogued 471 species from the James) on the garden club-school circuit, talking to anyone who would listen. He even filed suit with Ralph Nader's Clean Water Campaign, forcing President Nixon to release billions of dollars already appropriated for sewage treatment plants; 17 billion dollars of that went to Virginia. Ironically, many years later the city would condemn his property, claiming that the sewage treatment plant would someday need expanding. The city assigned no value to the boat ramp (appraised at almost half a million dollars), stating that no one "would want to launch a boat in a sewer." But the concern that Ancarrow had aroused--which would be taken up by others who found ways to get to the river--would not be easily silenced.

There were other clues in the 1960s that the bill for centuries of disregard was coming due, but only fishermen and state regulatory agencies noticed them. Numerous fish kills were reported to the State Water Control Board at different points on the river where fish still lived, and the causes were rarely found to be natural. Each year fewer shad and herring, and no sturgeon at all, were making the spawning run. The Commission of Game and Inland Fisheries was kept busy trucking new and tougher fish, especially the smallmouth bass, to restock the river. But fish were not the only wildlife missing. The eagles and ospreys that had once nested along the tidewater river were seen no more. Rachel Carson's revelations in Silent Spring came as little surprise to those close to the river, although she did highlight some missing pieces in the puzzle. The river was in trouble, because its ecological links to human activities in its basin had not been seen and acknowledged for more than three centuries.

Meanwhile, the State Water Control Board became stronger as environmental concern grew in the country and state, slowly acquiring the power to demand drastic cutbacks and treatment of industrial and urban wastes. Authorized and funded by the Clean Water Act and the Environmental Protection Agency, the Board could finally act, although within the boundaries of bureaucratic red tape. Fish life began rebounding as the river was gradually freed of some of its burden of pollution so it could begin cleansing itself. But its long history would not be forgotten quickly.

The most shocking revelation of all came in 1975, when the James River became synonymous with one particular manmade chemical--Kepone. For months the dramatic story of this nonbiodegradable pesticide focused national attention on the profound and far-reaching consequences on human health of using rivers as chemical dumps. Back in the 1950s, the giant Allied Chemical Corporation in Hopewell, that little town which proudly billed itself "The Chemical Capital of the World," patented and began small-scale manufacturing of Kepone, or chlordecone. An organochloride which is quite similar to mirex and cousin to chlordane, aldrin, and dieldrin, Kepone was designed to exterminate the Colorado potato beetle in West Germany, the banana root borer in Central America and Puerto Rico, and fire ants in Louisiana.

But this time the chemists had done too thorough a job. They managed to concoct a chemical which is extraordinarily persistent in the environment, one with large molecules and relatively low water solubility, a half-life too long to be measured, and a propensity to locate in aqueous and lipid solutions. The molecules of Kepone, like those of other synthetic chemicals such as dioxin, are highly toxic to the nervous system of animals which accumulate the molecules in body fat. This characteristic was undoubtedly considered desirable for eliminating fat insects, especially when they inhabited other countries.

From 1966 to 1973, Allied produced 50,000 to 200,000 kilograms of Kepone a year. Its wastes were discharged directly into the James, and no one knew or really cared. Two articles published in 1965 that noted severe physiological and reproductive effects on mice did not slow production or alert any environmental watchdogs. In fact, when Allied contracted with Life Sciences Products, a tiny new company headed by two former employees, to begin synthesizing Allied-supplied raw materials into Kepone, the Environmental Protection Agency declared that no registration was necessary, since undiluted Kepone could be considered a chemical not a pesticide, in spite of its marketing history.

The ironically-named Life Sciences company proved to be far less prudent than its parent company when it began producing 3,000 to 6,000 pounds of Kepone daily by operating constantly, day and night. Situated in a converted service station on the highway near the heart of town, the company enforced virtually no safety regulations, assuring its constantly changing workforce that the white powder in the air, on their clothes, even in their lunch area, was harmless. Still no one cared. An EPA air monitoring station 200 yards away from the plant registered 40 percent of the particulates as Kepone, and neighbors of the plant complained to the management about the smells and thick emissions. But in a town dependent on its chemical industries, one where executives' cars can be washed daily as they leave the parking lot, no one reacted. In fact, Hopewell even made an exception to its usual policy and permitted Life Sciences to discharge its wastes directly into the city's sewage system.

Had Life Sciences been more scrupulous about adhering to the safety rules set down by Allied, or had Kepone been a less immediately potent chemical, it is quite probable that contamination of the air and water of Hopewell and the James River could have continued indefinitely. As far as those few local, state, or federal authorities who knew about Kepone were concerned, there was no problem with the chemical, now or later.

As a rule, when a potent chemical dribbles its way into water, whether it be stream or aquifer, and subsequently into the food and the human beings who depend on that food and water, its toxic effects are quite slow and insiduous, difficult to trace and assess. Even extensive scientific studies can do little more than point suspiciously, since firm connections between cause and effect are virtually impossible to establish incontrovertibly, especially when discovered decades after contact. Kepone, though, dramatically broke this rule.

In July 1975, a Hopewell physician, perplexed by the unaccountably severe trembling of a young Life Sciences employee, sent a blood sample to the U.S. Public Health Service Center for Disease Control in Atlanta. At about the same time, the digesters at the local sewage treatment plant inexplicably broke down, forcing untreated sewage into Bailey's Creek and then the James. When the Virginia State Health Department was notified by the Public Health Service that the worker's blood had high levels of Kepone (7.5 parts per million), the pieces began falling into place. Within a week, the plant closed and no Kepone has been legally manufactured in the United States since.Allied chemical plant on the JamesThe appropriate governmental agencies now cared. They mobilized, testing the affected people, the neighboring soil, and miles of the river, examining bottom sediments, finfish, and shellfish. On public exhibit were the workers (more than 70) who were verifiably poisoned, especially the 46 who trembled uncontrollably and/or had visual difficulties and high concentrations of abnormal sperm. Tests showed that Kepone had accumulated also in the blood of workers' wives, children, and even their pets, as well as in the many people living near the plant in a low-income housing project and a home for the elderly. Traces of Kepone were found everywhere, from Hopewell's dust to the mud settled in the James all the way to its conjunction with the Chesapeake Bay.

The accumulations of this unnatural ingredient in Virginia's environment were soon found to be far from innocuous, just as the 1965 studies and the workers with the "Kepone shakes" had suggested. New animal studies documented how Kepone could damage the neurological and reproductive systems, the skin, the liver, and the vision. In 1976, a National Cancer Institute report also indicted Kepone in the development of liver cancer in animals. Physicians at the Medical College of Virginia began research to find effective treatment for the poisoned workers, for Kepone was proving difficult to dislodge from the human body.

As the dangers to human health were delineated, the governor closed the river to commercial fishing in December 1975· Also reacting conservatively the next spring, the Food and Drug Administration set the lowest measurable "action levels" on Kepone found in fishlife, saying that any finfish with more than .1 part per million of Kepone in its tissues would be considered hazardous for humans eating the fish. A year later the level was raised to .3 ppm (.4 for crabs) where it still stands amid annual debate. However, for years many fish in the estuary had accumulated more than double the higher level. Around 1981 fishing was again permitted for eels, oysters, and migratory fish that can flush themselves of Kepone, restricting only a few species for the last six months of the year when the Kepone accumulates to high levels in their tissues.

With its usual hyperbole, the media called Kepone the environmental tragedy of the decade, if not the century. Perhaps it would be fairer to say that Kepone was one of the first chemicals to have such a dramatic and thoroughly publicized impact on human health and the environment in this country. Most Virginians, though they love their history, would gladly relinquish the infamy of this particular honor. For a long time, many Americans refused to buy seafood originating in Virginia, pushing hundreds of watermen into bankruptcy including those along the closed James. Paranoia reached a new high, especially among the victims and their neighbors in Hopewell. Suits totalling more than 200 million dollars were filed by victims and watermen against Allied Chemical and former Life Sciences executives. The once-proud name of the James had been sullied among those who never knew her as well as those who loved her. Most people were assured that nothing good could ever come from this disaster.

Clean-up of this pervasive and persisting chemical turned out to be costly and difficult, even impossible in many instances. Kepone residues in the plant and the surrounding soils were trucked out under vigilant control and eventually buried in a salt mine in West Germany. The Corps had to abandon dredging of the James for several years in the area, meanwhile searching for safe technology to use when the sediments accumulating in the shipping channel would have to be removed. Most of the Kepone had to stay in the river bottom and in the fishlife, slowly moving up the food chain, where it was inaccessible. But the "muddy ol' Jeems" has kept on rolling by, laying down its load of upriver soil (as much as several inches a year, according to some authorities) over the Kepone-tainted sediments, thus keeping much of the chemical from being released into the water and its life.

Repercussions from Kepone may currently be more positive than negative, for a hard lesson about ecological connections and chemical persistence has been taught. No industry in Virginia, particularly if situated anywhere close to the James, would be foolish enough to risk endangering its reputation and profits by discharging pollutants which could be toxic, even if the now-stricter State Water Control Board would allow it. They are checked not so much by law as by the awareness that Allied Chemical was punished severely, losing millions of dollars for its role in the production of Kepone as well as substantial public confidence. A federal judge fined Allied 13.2 million dollars, directing that 8 million dollars go to establish an independent grant-awarding organization. Thus the Virginia Environmental Endowment, which supports environmental quality studies in the state, became the first such private organization in the country. Oddly enough, then, because of Kepone Virginia finds itself today as a sort of leader in river management and environmental concern.

Other human benefits are not so easy to weigh, though they exist. Researchers have found that the drug cholestyramine will eliminate Kepone from the human system, so the Life Sciences workers now show few if any physical effects of their ordeal. Some have even fathered healthy children recently. But levels of debilitating anxiety are much harder to measure. Even the level of Kepone in the sludge stored in a lagoon at the sewage treatment plant in Hopewell has been dropping, suggesting that something, possibly the resident fungus Aspergillus, can degrade the chemical into weaker compounds. The treatment plant itself has been greatly upgraded, so much that in 1983 the Lower James River Association bestowed its "Friend of the River Award" on the operation. Although people now buy Virginia seafood with confidence and fishing of many species has been allowed recently, five years of fishing bans have devastated the occupation of many commercial watermen on the James. And there are people who still consider the James little more than an obscenity. Yet even that may have merit if it helps assure that people will not forget how easily a river may be poisoned.

The river has offered many other lessons, but fortunately none have been as shocking as the Kepone discovery was. Gradually people have been finding themselves intimately linked to the river's flow, and sometimes in unexpected fashions. In a few hours on a sunny September day in 1981, the river turned bright green for almost fifty miles between Richmond and Scottsville, literally blooming with blue-green algae. Powered by the warmth of a brilliant Indian summer and low water full of nutrients donated by fertilized fields upstream, a little organism called Nodulavia hauveyana (whose proper place is usually under microscopes in biology classrooms) suddenly flourished. As algae go, this type was a comparatively innocent one which released odors as it died but no toxins, but it never had bloomed so vigorously in the James before.

Throughout the city of Richmond, the overwhelming and somewhat nauseating smell of wet earth came pouring out of spigots. The odor was ubiquitous, rising from sinks and bathrooms, salads and coffee pots. Though the city utilities department did receive telephone calls from European-bred people commenting nostalgically on the new "body" of the water, most people were disgusted, angry, and suddenly aware of how intimately connected their daily lives were with the river that ran through the city.

Thousands of dollars were spent as officials added tons of activated charcoal to water filters and chemists tested day and night. Newspaper articles about the few springs still open in the city brought long lines of people waiting patiently with jugs well into the morning hours, while stores rush-ordered bottled water for their anxious customers. Numerous solutions were suggested and rejected, including the possibility of using chemicals that would "kill everything in the river." The dying algae backed up behind the low dams of Richmond in what had become stagnant ponds, though some relief came by diverting water into the old canal with its intake pipes to the purification plant.

In a few weeks, rain and cold weather cleared the water, the fish resumed their normal eating habits, and the river no longer imposed its bloom of living and dying algae cells on the people dependent on its waters. So passed a relatively painless lesson that the river has human channels too.

There can also be a humorous side to the difficulties people have had in coping with the incessant motion of their rivers. The problem that the Virginia Power and Electric Company (VEPCO) encountered at its nuclear plant across the river from Jamestown is a good example of how people think "stop" when the river says "go." When the plant began operation, its screens for filtering the water were constantly clogged by countless numbers of tiny creatures in this nursery wetlands. VEPCO had to do something quickly, for it needed the water for cooling and it was committed to minimal environmental impact, but there were few precedents for solving this particular impingement problem.

VEPCO biologists and engineers began experimenting, trying to find a way to divert the fish. First they installed air machines in the canal to blow dense curtains of bubbles, but the fish swam right through, drawn rather than deterred by the oxygenated water. Next, they tried a sound barrier, installing a number of underwater speakers in front of intake pumps. No matter what they played through the speakers-- MUSAK, hard rock, classical music, or just loud noise-- the fish kept dancing up the canal to meet their doom on the fixed screens.

Finally human ingenuity triumphed. J. D· Ristroph, director of VEPCO's Environmental Services Department, designed a new kind of traveling screen with 47 screen panels which rotate continuously. Rather than blocking the young fish, the screens carry them for a brief ride, then drop them into a sluice trough that carries them safely downstream and far offshore, safely out of harm. It was a clever idea and it has worked well, with a 4-6 percent mortality rate instead of the earlier 95 percent, and the design has been adopted by power plants all over the world.

Unfortunately, simple engineering devices or waiting for nature's repairs will not solve all the problems encountered by living creatures in this river, especially if they happen to live downstream from people who continue to use the river thoughtlessly. This conclusion was recently underscored, both dramatically and scientifically, with the publication of the Environmental Protection Agency's extensive studies of the body of water captive at the foot of the James, the Chesapeake Bay. Even the most cautious scientists now declare that the less hardy but valuable life in the Bay---such as striped bass, oysters, blue crabs, and anadromous fish--is dying off, and the Bay's system of rivers must assume most of the blame, especially the Susquehanna, the Potomac, and the James. Each carries nitrogen and phosphorus from land run-off and sewage treatment, as well as metals and organic chemical compounds which have seriously disrupted the ecosystems of the Bay. Some signs may be found right in the mouth of the James. Submerged aquatic vegetation which once hid and supported baby crabs and other nursery animals disappeared here, as in much of the Bay, in the 1970s, victim of overfertilization from upstream fields and sewage treatment effluent.

The James River oyster is in serious trouble. This tenacious shelled creature, lauded by John Smith as huge and abundant, has long selected the mouth of the James as breeding grounds and nursery. Stuck on its bed, it has tolerated and absorbed whatever has come downstream, purging itself as much as possible. Watermen long ago learned that they would have to move the baby oysters to other rivers and the Bay so they could grow and cleanse themselves better than they could in the James. But the numbers of "brood stock" and "spat set" have declined drastically since 1960, in effect undermining the long-established oyster industry of the Bay. The MSX virus and the oyster drill have appeared, weakening and killing susceptible oysters. Scientists now suspect that they may be vulnerable because of chlorine and other "debilitating contaminants" and increased silt loaded with pesticides, Kepone, and heavy metals, all of which interact with salinity and water-level changes. One study discovered 94 different organic compounds, including Kepone, in oysters taken from the river. There seems to be no question that when the lower river is in trouble, so are the reproductive cycles of the oyster and other forms of life in the Bay.

The lowly seed oyster has thus become one living barometer of the dangers of upstream pollution. Its message-- that the entire river system must be seen, understood, and managed with care--is heard all the more clearly because a profitable industry is at stake. The oyster will be watched carefully as federal and state governments embark on an expensive and complicated campaign to clean up the rivers to save the life of the Bay.

The findings of the landmark (or rivermark!) Chesapeake Bay study were first published in September 1982. There were no festivities planned, not even much publicity for a while, and the news was received soberly. Yet there could not have been a more appropriate way to celebrate the 375th anniversary of the white man's first settlement on the James. The modern language of authority, the scientists' statistics, had declared the life of the Bay to be in peril, perhaps dying, and pointed fingers of blame upstream, up the Bay's rivers. Now it was time for people to revise their ideas about the river, time to name it again. To save the Bay, and perhaps ultimately themselves, they would have to go beyond seeing the river as a highway for ships, as a flow to be regulated and channelized to flush through machines, homes, and themselves, and as a ready source of commercial food. Its continuing wealth would depend on how clearly they could see the greater River of stream, river, and Bay, of sea and rainfall, as a living, moving ecosystem, and acknowledge its intimate connection with their own well-being.

chaapter 16
chapter 18