The James River, our natural resources, recess, state government, and combined sewer systems: what’s the big idea? If you were able to join us on January 19 for the Big Learn, you know where I’m going with this. Our panelists did a great job providing background on the Kepone crisis, the hard battle fought to clean the river, and why it is important for all of us to spend time outside.
In 1975, Kepone, a toxic insecticide related to DDT and produced in Hopewell by Life Science Products, made national headlines as workers fell ill from exposure to the neurotoxin and the state halted production. A few months later, the state also shut down the James River to fishing as it became clear the water was poisoned. 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.
The Kepone disaster directly led to the founding of the Virginia Environmental Endowment (VEE) in 1977 as the result of a visionary ruling by Judge Robert R. Merhige, Jr. When the US District Court for the eastern District of Virginia fined Allied Chemical for polluting the James River, $8 million of the $13.2 million fine was used to fund the creation of the VEE. Today, an independent grant-making foundation, the VEE, has awarded millions of dollars to improve environmental quality, literacy, and partnerships throughout the state and beyond.
Thanks to the Clean Water Act and the efforts of local organizations like the James River Association (and a few hurricanes), the river and its wildlife have bounced back and our river and parks are now highlighted as outdoor destinations. For the first time in decades, the James River Association has rated the river’s health at a B- in the State of the James report. But our panelists caution, “They grade on a curve.” A B- is great news for us, but there is still work to be done.
Like many old cities, Richmond has a combined sewer system. Simply put, a combined sewer system is when storm runoff and wastewater share the same pipes. A great improvement to large cities in the mid 1800’s, these underground pipes worked to dry out streets—streets that were literally urban cesspools as people used their newly invented flush toilets. Initially, the waters ran and were discharged directly into waterways. We saw the error of this system and in the early 20th century, sewage treatment plants were added to clean the wastewater before it hit the streams. But there’s a catch. Even today, when too much storm water is added to the pipes, we have what they call a “Combined Sewer Overflow” (CSO), which is exactly what you think it is. After heavy rains, the system is overwhelmed and excess water is released into a stream or river. The City of Richmond tracks and reports these instances online here. In Richmond, the major overflow points are found on the banks of the James River and Gillies Creek.
In addition to CSO incidents, today’s threats to the river come from, well, simply put, us. Chemicals and improper cleaning of pet waste from our yards is a significant source of pollution to the river.
There are still large commercial concerns as well, as was discussed during the Q&A when we talked about the dewatering of coal ash ponds on the James River (DEQ permits were issued with no limit to the volume of wastewater and the amount of toxic chemicals that are discharged into the James).
We also connected the health of our rivers and parks with education and development for children. As education relies more on standardized tests to evaluate teacher and student performance, teachers are reluctant to lose precious instruction time. Some schools have greatly reduced or even eliminated recess. If a child spends all day at school inside, then comes home to computers, smart phones, and gaming systems, how does this effect brain development, attention spans, creativity, imagination, and physical health?
At the end of the day, there is a very clear Big Picture. Each of us relies on the James River and its tributaries for water (one third of all Virginians). And living in Greater Richmond, we’re all on the Chesapeake Bay watershed as well, which is an important part of our state commerce. Recreation is also becoming an important driver for our regional tourism, which contributes heavily to state resources generated through sales taxes in our stylish hotels and award-winning restaurants.
After the Big Learn, I certainly felt as if I’d learned a lot. Good stewardship of our parks and rivers has a significant impact on our children and economy in addition to our basic personal health. And the topic is timely. As we look at the disaster, chaos, and suffering in Flint, Michigan, it’s a good time to take stock of where our own water comes from and how we can become active advocates in ensuring it is clean, safe, drinkable, swimmable, fishable, and overall, enjoyable. We are, after all, the River City.