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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.

Shenandoah Riverkeeper

On Feb. 13, Shenandoah Riverkeeper and Potomac Riverkeeper officially settled their Federal Clean Water Act lawsuit with Ox Paperboard.

"We are pleased with the settlement," said Shenandoah Riverkeeper Jeff Kelble. "Ox Paperboard provides a green service to the community and the company’s leaders rescued a failing business several years ago and saved local jobs. Yet, before the settlement there remained an ongoing issue with toxic discharges to Flowing Springs Run which had continued in violation of the law for far too long."

In the settlement, Ox Paperboard is required to design and implement a biological treatment system to handle wastewater discharge as part of their planned facility upgrades, to pay more than $100,000 in fines to U.S. Department of Justice, and to fund a $50,000 supplemental environmental project within Flowing Springs run or the Shenandoah River.

After waiting over a year and a half for the promised upgrades to occur, the Riverkeepers filed in order to guarantee that the environmental harm being caused by the facility would be addressed prior to or during the plant’s planned expansion.

"We decided early on that our priority was to resolve the issues with the plant and avoid the courts, so we believed that a settlement was the most expeditious way forward," said Kelble.

The Riverkeepers even tried to diminish the fines levied against Ox Paperboard in favor of a Supplemental Environmental Project (SEP) that the company will fund.

Flowing Springs Run has the potential to be the jewel of the county. Near Ranson, seven feeder springs come bubbling out of the ground to form the stream. "Working with a number of local groups to implement environmental improvements upstream of the facility, we hope that we can lay the foundation to bring back native brook trout historically supported by this stream and undo some of the damage that has been done from years of excessive discharges,” Kelble said.

In addition, a restoration project upstream from the plant has the potential eventually benefit Ox Paperboard—improving the quality of the water used in its operations could lower operating costs for the facility.

For more information, click here.

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The Potomac and Shenandoah Riverkeepers are grateful for the work of their attorneys, Chris Stroech of Arnold & Bailey, PLLC in Shepherdstown, W.V. and Ken Kristl, Director of the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic at Widener University School of Law. Both attorneys diligently managed the sensitive case with flawless care.

Potomac Riverkeeper, Inc. is a clean water 501(c)3 charitable nonprofit that, includes the Potomac Riverkeeper and the Shenandoah Riverkeeper. It stops pollution and restores clean water in the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers and their tributaries through community engagement and enforcement of the Clean Water Act and other environmental laws. As a membership organization, it has offices in Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C.

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