In the 1970s, news came to light that a pesticide manufacturer in Hopewell had been mishandling and releasing a toxic chemical into the James River, polluting fish and causing several neurological issues in its workers.
Nearly two years ago — and 40 years after a court settlement — the Virginia Institute of Marine Science released a report detailing the status of Kepone in the river’s fish. It contained mixed news: One-third of all fish samples from the river contained no detectable trace of the banned chemical.
Meanwhile, that meant two-thirds of fish samples still had detectable levels of the pesticide.
Since the study’s results were released in 2017, VIMS scientists and the state budget have put additional research on hold, simply trusting that mother nature has continued to bury the Kepone deeper in the riverbed, said Michael Unger, associate professor at VIMS.
“The trend is holding,” Unger said. “It kind of supports the idea that monitoring isn’t needed at this point on a year basis.”
VIMS researchers may work to reevaluate the Kepone levels in the James River within the next six years, if funding is available, Unger said.
VIMS monitored Kepone levels in the James until 2000, when state funding began to wane. Between 2000 and 2009, researchers collected fish samples irregularly.
“In a time where there’s less money for environmental work, it was no longer a high priority for the [Department of Environmental Quality],” Unger said.
Between 2009 and 2015, VIMS was unable to continue monitoring Kepone because of lack of funding. In 2016, researchers received a grant from the Virginia Environmental Endowment that allowed them to once again take fish samples from the river.
The VEE was created by a court order in 1977 as part of a settlement with Allied Chemical Corp., the company that dumped Kepone into the river, according to a VIMS news article.
The employees with Allied who were exposed to the pesticide showed “severe neurologic symptoms,” VIMS said, including tremors, weight loss, altered gait, changes in behavior and the “Kepone shakes.”
Kepone may also cause cancer.
So, are we safe?
The state closed the river to fishing for more than 10 years when Kepone was much more prevalent.
Since the fisheries reopened, Kepone has gradually been found in smaller quantities in fewer fish.
The 2017 report showed 35 percent of fish samples fell below the Kepone detection limit of 0.01 parts per million. The rest fell between .015 and .03 parts per million, which was below the Federal Drug Administration’s action limit of 0.3 parts per million, according to VIMS.
The FDA regulates how much of a certain toxin can be found in edible fish and shellfish. For chemicals like Kepone, it must be below .3 parts per million.
Unger said he’s fielded questions about a possible Kepone “flare up” during hurricanes or dredging, but he does not believe either will pose a long-term threat.
Hurricanes may stir up surface water, but are unlikely to unbury Kepone on the river bed. Instead, it could bury the toxic chemical deeper.
And if dredging stirs up Kepone along the river, it will be “very isolated and local,” unlikely to cause fish to develop high Kepone concentrations like those seen during the peak of the Kepone crisis in the 1970s and 1980s, Unger said.
“I doubt it’ll be fully gone,” Ugner said. “We don’t think it’s degrading, it’s just changed in availability to the food chain.”
Virginians may be able to write off the possibility of a Kepone flare-up, but there are other contaminants in the James River that are cause for some concern.
Unger said there are polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the James River, which are classified as possible carcinogens and can cause other health issues such as organ damage and skin irritation, according to the Virginia Department of Health.
The health department also has several advisories listed for the James River for PCBs, which advise against eating certain fish, such as gizzard shad, carp and blue catfish.
The advisories also recommend limiting the consumption of other fish to two or less meals each month.
Kepone advisories recommend limiting eating any species of fish from the James River to one meal per day.
Unger said eliminating harmful compounds like PCBs has proven to be more difficult than Kepone because PCBs are “widespread around the world” and come from many different sources, such as runoff and industry.
“Bay-wide, there are issues with those chemicals,” Unger said. “The James is not different.”
The Kepone contamination in the James came from a single, pointed source, Unger said.
Scientists are continuing to monitor all contaminants in Virginia’s rivers, and at some point, Unger said he will seek a source of funding to check Kepone levels once again.
“It’s a lesson to be learned,” he said. “The fact that it’s sticking around nearly 40 years after — we should learn from that.”