James River Association Sees Hope for the River’s Future

The James River has faced repeated water pollution issues over the years. Virginia’s Governor McAuliffe has the opportunity to enact some major changes in his tenure.

Lynchburg train derailment | James River Association

Today we have a guest blog from one of our partner groups — James River Association. Bill Street is CEO for James River Association, and Sterling Nichols is James River Association’s Board Chair who was born and raised in Hopewell, Virginia. The James River Association provides a voice for the river and takes action to promote conservation and responsible stewardship of the natural resources of the James.

This month marks the 40th anniversary of a turning point in the health of the James River. On July 24, 1975, Life Sciences Products in Hopewell, Virginia, was closed by the Commonwealth of Virginia due to the health impacts of its product, Kepone, a toxic insecticide related to DDT.

What made the pesticide so effective also caused harm to the workers and the river. In 1975, Kepone made national headlines as workers fell ill from exposure to the neurotoxin and production was halted by the state. A few months later, the state also shut down the James River to fishing for the same reason – the river ecology was also impacted.

Because Kepone slowly breaks down in the environment, the commercial fishing ban lasted for 13 years, devastating the river’s fishing industry and contributing to the James River being identified as one of the most polluted rivers in America at the time. Today, Kepone still rests in the sediment bed of the James, slowly being covered up year after year and reducing the risk to aquatic life, but it was still found in fish tissue until testing stopped in 2009.

In the year following the Kepone shutdown, the James River Association was formed to be a voice for the river and the people who care about it. Over the history of the organization, we have seen tremendous improvements to the river’s health. As a result, the James is now consistently graded as one of the healthier major tributaries to the Chesapeake Bay, and the river is a major recreation and tourist draw for the communities along it. With a healthier river, Richmond was named the Best River Town by Outside Magazine, and its award-winning James River Park System is the largest tourist attraction in town.

In Hopewell, Virginia, the city is now working with neighboring localities and partners to build riverfront trails, access points and amenities so that people can enjoy the very waters that were closed 40 years ago. Because the river today enhances our quality of life and local tourism, in addition to supplying our drinking water and supporting commercial interests, it means that we have even more at stake in protecting it.

Unfortunately, recent events remind us that toxic spills can still happen on our rivers if we are not vigilant. The Dan River coal ash spill, the Elk River chemical spill, and the James River oil train spill in Lynchburg, Virginia, made headlines across the country. Furthermore, in the past year we have also seen spills in Hopewell, Virginia, that caused fish kills and shut down the city’s drinking water— forcing businesses and schools to close. These events clearly demonstrate that while we have made much progress, our river is still at risk.

Today, there are more than 1,100 chemical storage sites in the James River basin that hold over 80 percent of Virginia’s registered toxic chemicals. Billions of gallons of coal ash sit on the banks of the river in unlined storage ponds. Millions of gallons of highly volatile crude oil travel the railroads along the banks of the river every week.

We are heartened by the recent steps taken to address these concerns, and now Virginia’s Governor McAuliffe and his administration have the opportunity to secure a healthier future for the James River.

Crude Oil Transport by Rail – On the anniversary of the Lynchburg oil spill, three major advances were announced: 1) Governor McAuliffe presented the recommendations of his Rail Safety and Security Task Force, which included increased rail inspections; 2) Senators Warner and Kaine introduced legislation to accelerate the use of safer rail cars; and 3) U.S. Department of Transportation presented their final rule to strengthen safe transportation of flammable liquids by rail. Virginia’s Governor must now ensure that his task force recommendations are fully implemented.

Coal Ash Storage – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has issued their first ever coal ash storage requirements, while utilities in South Carolina, North Carolina and Tennessee committed to storing coal ash in fully-lined and monitored facilities. Governor McAuliffe has the opportunity to ensure that Virginia’s rivers have the same protection as rivers in our neighboring states to the south.

Toxic Chemical Storage – This year, the Virginia General Assembly called for a study ensuring that chemical storage in the Commonwealth is conducted in a manner that protects human health and the environment. However, a James River watershed risk assessment, completed by Environmental Stewardship Concepts, found that there are substantial gaps in the information needed to accurately understand the risks facing our waters. Governor McAuliffe can make sure that we have the necessary data and adequate safeguards for the many chemicals stored along the river and discharged into it.

On this 40th anniversary of the bold action taken to address one of the worst toxic contamination events in Virginia, we urge Governor McAuliffe to continue Virginia’s leadership and commitment to the health of its waters and its citizens.

Please join James River Association’s efforts to protect our river at risk.

American Rivers applauds the great work of the James River Association, and looks forward to working together to improve the health of the river for future generations!

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