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DuPont to Pay $50 Million for Mercury Pollution, Largest Settlement in Virginia History

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The South River in red. No fish other than trout should be eaten from these waters due to elevated mercury levels. Photo credit: South River Science Team

Chemical company Dupont Co. will pay Virginia a stunning $50 million to clean up decades of mercury pollution. The proposed settlement is the largest natural resource settlement in the state's history and the eighth largest in the nation, state and federal officials said.

"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," Gov. Terry McAuliffe said in a statement. "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."

"[The settlement] ranks 8th in all of time of natural resource damage settlements across the country ... and that includes such big cases like Deep Water Horizon and Exxon Valdez," Paul Phifer with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services said, according to the Associated Press.

The case dates back several decades when a former DuPont factory outside the city of Waynesboro leaked mercury—a chemical used for the plant's rayon production—into the South River from 1929 to 1950. The pollution was finally discovered in the 1970s and DuPont has worked with federal and state officials on cleanup solutions over the years.

Still, the mercury remains persistent and has been difficult to remove. The South River is one of the area's leading tributaries so any contamination eventually flows into the Shenandoah River. According to the Shenandoah Riverkeeper, the South River Science Team found that South River and South Fork Shenandoah River fish continue to have elevated mercury concentrations some 60 years later after the DuPont plant ceased production.

Mercury is highly toxic and can travel up the food chain and can have a whole host of terrifying problems for aquatic life and humans alike. Fish consumption advisories in affected areas are in place to this day.

"Over 100 miles of river and thousands of acres of floodplain and riparian habitat were impacted from the mercury," the Department of Justice said in a statement. "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."

NBC29 notes that the historic settlement would go towards wildlife habitat restoration, water quality enhancement and improvements to recreational areas.

"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," Mike Liberati, South River project director for the DuPont Corporate Remediation Group, said in a statement.

"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," Liberati continued.

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.

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