Remember Kepone

Published 8:49 pm Tuesday, April 11, 2017

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The Trump administration’s determination to roll back environmental regulation is a part of the siren call of the “free market.” Just release business, including industry, from federal regulation and we will all prosper. America will be “great again.”

Specifically targeted is the Environmental Protection Agency, which some business interests believe has become far too aggressive in its pursuit of, heaven forbid, environmental protection.

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Yes, regulators can and do become overzealous. We have seen it occur right here at home. However, for Virginians who are tempted to accept the premise that unfettered industry will do no harm to our environment, I offer only this. Remember Kepone.

Kepone is an organochlorine compound chemically related to DDT. It was used to kill ants. In fact, it did a marvelous job of killing ants, but was also known to be a potent carcinogen. In time, it became known as one of the “dirty dozen” pesticides alongside DDT, Aldrin and others, a number of which are banned today.

Because of its potency, Kepone held huge economic potential for its patent owner — Allied Chemical. But everyone associated with it knew it was dangerous, so with full knowledge of that industrial giant, a group of Allied employees created a small company named Life Sciences that produced thousands of pounds of the chemical every day in an abandoned service station in Hopewell.

Life Sciences wasn’t in business for more than a year and a half, but during that time managed to create one of the nation’s most costly environmental crises. Plant workers who were mixing the stuff by hand and without protective gear became ill and complained of violent tremors and diminished vision. Meanwhile, Kepone residue was discharged into Hopewell’s wastewater system and completely shut down the city’s treatment plant.

The Virginia Health Department began investigating and discovered the extent of the disaster. They found to their horror that the damage in Hopewell wasn’t the worst of it. Thousands upon thousands of pounds of Kepone had found their way into the James River and there the toxin worked its way up the food chain. Sediment-dwelling organisms ingested the poison and were, in turn, eaten by fish, and on up the chain it went, eventually to be identified in humans who were consuming James River seafood.

Scientists knew from the beginning that the chemical was toxic to any living organisms, including humans, but there was little data as to what levels were “acceptable.” Zero, of course, would be nice, but as with all environmental degradation, that’s not possible.

Governor Mills E. Godwin Jr., a native of Chuckatuck and a lifelong friend of watermen and seafood processors, made the personally painful decision to close the James River to seafood harvest from Hopewell to the Chesapeake Bay in 1975. The ban remained in effect for recreational fishing until 1981 and for commercial harvest until 1988.

In time, the relentless flow of silt-laden water from the James’ vast flood plain dropped silt on top of silt and covered up the Kepone lying on the river bottom. There it remains, disturbed only when the river is dredged. It continues to be found within the food chain, but in much diminished amounts.

The James River is today more vibrant than it has been in decades thanks in large measure to much improved wastewater treatment, sediment control, better agricultural practices and various other efforts, most of which have been initiated by governmental regulation or assisted by governmental funding.

I cannot imagine anyone wanting to see another Kepone-style environmental crisis in the Chesapeake Bay. I’m confident no one would. And yet, there are people who honestly believe that unregulated industry would never again do anything to harm the world around it, no matter how strong the profit motive.

For those who believe that, I say only, remember Kepone.