WAYNESBORO, Va. (WHSV) -- Eighty years ago, the DuPont facility in Waynesboro leaked mercury into the South River throughout the 1930s and 1940s. The chemical has stayed in the water ever since, with data collected over the last two decades showing mercury levels remaining stable.
The company used mercury to manufacture rayon from around 1929 to 1950. Some of the toxic chemical seeped out and spread downstream, and has been there ever since.
For years, this has led to warnings about fish harvested in the South River and many families from the area can tell you they've long warned children about the water of the river.
However, recent years have brought lots of changes, with cooperation between DuPont and the U.S. and state governments.
Now, the Departments of Justice and the Interior have partnered with the Commonwealth of Virginia to announce a proposed settlement with DuPont worth about $50 million to resolve years of claims related to the release of mercury from the former E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company (DuPont) facility.
Officials call it the largest environmental damage settlement in Virginia history and the eighth largest in the nation.
Over 100 miles of river and associated floodplain remain contaminated by mercury in the South River and South Fork Shenandoah River watershed.
---HOW THE SETTLEMENT WILL WORK---
Projects the money would pay for include wildlife habitat restoration, water quality enhancement and improvements to recreational areas.
In addition to a cash payment of just over $42 million, DuPont will fund the design and implementation of significant renovations at the Front Royal Fish Hatchery, estimated to cost up to $10 million. The settlement terms are outlined in a proposed consent decree filed in federal court in Harrisonburg, Virginia, today.
DuPont will provide the funds to government natural resource trustees, who will oversee the implementation of projects compensating the public for the natural resource injuries and associated losses in ecological and recreational services, such as fishing access.
The trustees, through U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Commonwealth of Virginia, invite feedback on actions to restore the river and wildlife habitat and improve public lands and recreational resources. A draft restoration plan and environmental assessment (RP/EA) was also released today for a 45-day public comment period. The plan results from stakeholder meetings beginning in 2008 to determine how best to compensate the public for the injured natural resources and their uses.
"This remarkable settlement will help restore the precious natural resources of the South Fork Shenandoah watershed, bringing lasting benefits for future generations of Virginians to enjoy," said Assistant Attorney General John C. Cruden for the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division. "This joint action with the Department of the Interior and the Commonwealth of Virginia is yet another testament to the value and effectiveness of cooperative federalism in action and I am grateful to all of our partners for the efforts that brought us to this resolution."
"Today's settlement, the largest of its kind in Virginia history, is the culmination of a coordinated effort by countless partners at both the state and federal level," said Governor Terry McAuliffe. "Thanks to their hard work, Virginians and the environment will benefit from unprecedented investments in land conservation and habitat restoration. I applaud and appreciate the meticulous monitoring by our state agencies, the thorough analysis of the scientific advisory committee, and DuPont's willingness to come to the table and make this happen."
Since 2005, DuPont and the trustees have worked cooperatively to assess and identify potential restoration projects to benefit natural resources affected by mercury releases from the DuPont facility.
Over 100 miles of river and thousands of acres of floodplain and riparian habitat were impacted from the mercury. Some of the assessed and impacted natural resources include fish, migratory songbirds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals. Recreational fishing opportunities were also impacted from the mercury.
In keeping with what the company says is its "long history of cooperation with, and participation in, government initiatives, and its ongoing support of the local community," DuPont says they are "committed to a long-term presence in the Waynesboro area and to maintaining transparency with its citizens."
---ATTORNEY GENERAL MARK HERRING ISSUES A STATEMENT ON THE SETTLEMENT---
"Clean air, water and land are environmental priorities and economic assets that make Virginia a great place to live, work and raise a family," said Attorney General Mark Herring of the Commonwealth of Virginia. "We have an obligation to protect these assets for future generations and this record-setting settlement shows that we take our responsibilities seriously. This settlement will allow us to protect and enhance lands throughout the Shenandoah Valley and improve the quality of water for wildlife, anglers, paddlers and others who use these waterways for recreation. I really appreciate the hard work that my team, Governor Terry McAuliffe, Secretary Molly Ward, DEQ and our federal partners put into making this historic settlement a reality."
---PROJECTS FOR THE FUTURE---
Federal law seeks to make the environment and public whole for injuries to natural resources and ecological and recreational services resulting from a release of hazardous substances to the environment.
The trustees evaluated a range of restoration alternatives and have ultimately proposed a preferred restoration alternative that includes projects that best meet the requirement that restoration efforts specifically focus on the injured resources. Proposed projects include:
• Land protection, property acquisition, improvements to recreational opportunities and wildlife habitat restoration
• Improvements to water quality and fish habitat through activities such as streamside plantings and erosion control, as well as stormwater pond improvements
• Mussel propagation and restoration to improve water quality, stabilize sediment and enhance stream bottom structure
• Front Royal Fish Hatchery renovations to improve production of warm-water fish such as smallmouth bass
• Recreational fishing access creation or improvement
• Migratory songbird habitat restoration and protection
The draft RP/EA outlines these proposed projects, as well as other restoration alternatives and an evaluation of injuries to the natural resources. It is available online, along with other information on the process, at www.fws.gov/northeast/virginiafield/news/news.html.
---PUBLIC MEETING ABOUT THE PLAN---
The trustees will host a public meeting to summarize key components of the draft restoration plan and answer questions. The public meeting will be held on Jan. 10, 2017, at the Waynesboro Public Library lower level meeting room from 6:00 PM to 8:30 PM.
The library is located at 600 S. Wayne Avenue, Waynesboro, Virginia, 22980.
Following the comment period, the trustees will review and consider comments and prepare the final RP/EA. Ultimately, the trustees will work with project partners such as local, state, and federal agencies; nonprofit organizations; and landowners to implement the projects.
STATEMENT FROM DUPONT'S CORPORATE REMEDIATION GROUP
Mike Liberati, South River project director for the DuPont Corporate Remediation Group, has issued the following official statement in regards to the latest settlement.
Since 2003, DuPont has worked cooperatively with U.S. and state governments to assess portions of the South River and South Fork Shenandoah River for impacts from past mercury contamination. This rigorous technical process, called a Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA), is conducted to determine whether harm has occurred to natural resources in the river system. The team conducting the NRDA was made up of technical experts from DuPont and a group of trustees from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
Based on the results from NRDA, the trustees believe that some harm has occurred to certain natural resources in the river system, including fish, birds, and amphibians. They also believe there is some impairment to recreational uses of the rivers.
DuPont has agreed to provide $42.3 million in support of restoration projects in the South River and South Fork Shenandoah watersheds. The trustees will use these funds for a number of restoration projects to enhance natural resources in the region.
In keeping with its long history of cooperation with, and participation in, government initiatives, and its ongoing support of the local community, DuPont’s is committed to a long-term presence in the Waynesboro area and to maintaining transparency with its citizens.
Prior to the NRDA agreement, the company also invested millions of dollars, partnering with local universities on curriculum-based classroom projects, sponsoring civic and cultural events, funding park enhancements, and conducting educational outreach to local schools and non-English speaking populations. The company funds the South River Science Team which is run by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and conducts testing and evaluation of the river’s water quality.
DuPont will also collaborate with the state to upgrade the Front Royal fish hatchery and continue its work in Virginia to remediate past mercury contamination of the South River related to its former operations in Waynesboro. The first phase of remediation involving a portion of riverbank in Constitution Park is on schedule for a February completion. Soil containing the highest concentrations of mercury is being excavated and hauled away and replaced by clean topsoil. Other areas with low levels of mercury are being stabilized and returned to their natural states with effective erosion controls focused on replanting and preserving native vegetation.
This is a story WHSV has been tracking for years. You can find much of our coverage in the Related Stories section of this page.