Defending Mother Earth


Originally published in the Spring 2022 edition of the Virginia Defender, issue 68, printed April 21. Reproduced here for accessibility and archival purposes. To find other stories in the Spring 2022 issue or to download the full PDF, see this post. For other issues dating back to 2012, see the Full Issues page.

By Delaney Jooris

At 348 miles, the James is Virginia’s longest river. Above: A view from Rocketts Landing, just east of Richmond. Photo by Phil Wilayto.

This issue of The Virginia Defender comes out on April 21 – one day before Earth Day. To mark the occasion, we decided to devote our lead story to an examination of how pollution and global warming is affecting our state, with a particular look at the James River.

Scientists now tell us we have just three years to change our ways and drastically reverse our dependence on fossil fuels, or life on Earth will become untenable. But meanwhile, the politicians continue to bow down before the Holy Altar of Big Business, worshiping the oil, gas and coal companies that line their pockets and keep them in office.

We wish we had some cheery news to offer, something like, “But we still have time!” Well, we do – just barely, but it will take a massive outcry from the people. Unless that happens, we may as well just apologize to future generations now, and hope that they’ll be merciful.

The world is in the midst of a rapidly worsening climate crisis.

The United Nations Climate Report released in early April stresses the urgency of this crisis: We have just three years to stabilize global temperatures and mitigate climate change, or we’ll reach a point of no return, where sustaining life on Earth will become increasingly difficult.

Environmental problems are often portrayed as primarily an issue for the Global South. For example, a 2021 report from the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development estimates that developing countries have economic losses three times greater than high-income countries due to “climate-related disasters.” While countries with weaker infrastructure are the most susceptible to environmental stress, the notion that these dangers are a non-issue for the United States is wishful thinking at best.

According to the National Centers for Environmental Information, the U.S. experienced 20 individual “billion-dollar weather and climate disaster events” in 2021 alone, with costs totaling an estimated $148 billion. This was the third most costly year on record. Disaster counts and costs are on the rise, a trend the NCEI attributes to a number of factors, including climate change.

In addition, a 2021 report by the federal Environmental Protection Agency shows that climate change disproportionately impacts “socially vulnerable” populations. Marginalized communities have fewer resources to prepare for and recover from environmental stressors, which takes a toll on the health and life expectancy of these communities.

Further, the labeling of environmental issues as “third-world” problems obscures the systemic nature of climate change and absolves countries like the U.S. of accountability for their role in damaging the environment.

U.S. Water Challenges

This year it was reported by the Environmental Integrity Project that nearly half the country’s rivers and streams do not meet standards for “swimming, recreation, aquatic life, fish consumption, or drinking water sources.” This is after the Trump administration in 2019 repealed Clean Water regulations. This April, the Supreme Court voted to narrow the criteria that state and tribal authorities can use to veto projects that might threaten water quality.

Since his election, President Joe Biden has taken steps to reinstate clean water safeguards. In November, the administration started the process of restoring protections for hundreds of thousands of smaller U.S. waterways. The administration also reported that it aims to clarify the language of the Clean Water Act, which simply protects “waters of the United States,” a phrasing that has allowed developers and lobbyists to argue that nonmajor or seasonal bodies of water are not protected by the law.

Even with the law intact, ensuring proper enforcement is its own problem. The Natural Resources Defense Council, Coming Clean and the Environmental Justice Health Alliance report that EPA data shows race is the strongest indicator “of slow and ineffective enforcement of federal drinking water law.” Together, race, ethnicity and spoken language had the strongest relationship to the most serious and long-standing violations of the law.

Rural communities were found to be at surprisingly high risk for drinking water violations, with systems serving fewer than 3,300 people accounting for 80 percent of violations.

Drinking polluted water is known to cause a variety of severe health issues. As reported by the EPA, these include “gastrointestinal illnesses, nervous system or reproductive effects, and chronic diseases such as cancer.” According to the American Cancer Association, Black Americans have the highest death rate and shortest survival rates for most cancers of any racial/ethnic group in the country.

Access to water, polluted or safe, is also at risk in the West. According to the NCEI, the current drought is the worst in the 22- year history of the U.S. Drought Monitor. In September through March, parts of Texas had not seen such a dry season since the Dust Bowl of 1895. Most major agricultural activity and some of the most populous areas in the country rely on the Ogallala Aquifer, which is being used up at unsustainable rates.

Virginia Water Challenges

According to the NCEI, Virginia was impacted by eight of the United States’ billion-dollar disaster events in 2021, costing the state up to $1 billion. Three of these events were hurricanes and tropical storms, largely affecting Virginia’s coastline. Additionally, Virginia’s waterways and the Chesapeake Bay, major sources of revenue for the state, remain in poor to abysmal condition.

According to the Virginia Tourism Corporation, before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2019, the state’s tourism industry generated $27 billion in revenues and supported over 237,000 jobs. In 2020, Virginia ranked eighth in the country for domestic travel spending, and the travel and tourism industry accounted for 3.1 percent of the Commonwealth’s total Gross Domestic Product that year.

Virginia’s water features are responsible for a substantial percentage of the state’s tourism revenue. In 2017, a record-breaking 19 million people visited Virginia Beach, generating $2.45 billion in revenue.

In 2019, Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, which includes the Shenandoah River and a national park, generated $1.57 billion in revenue. Despite years of troubling algae growth, arguably related to nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, the EPA approved the Department of Environmental Quality’s decision not to list the Shenandoah River as impaired, which would have required the state to enforce pollution limits for the river.

Another large source of state revenue is seafood. According to a 2009 report from the NOAA, the Chesapeake Bay commercial seafood industry that year generated $3.39 billion in sales and nearly 34,000 jobs.

However, the fishery’s health remains damaged and fragile. In 2020, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation gave the bay a health grade of D-. That organization has attributed the stagnant health of the bay to the Trump administration’s weakening of the Clean Water Act, as well as actions by the states of New York and Pennsylvania. Last year, the foundation, along with Virginia, Maryland and D.C., sued the EPA, alleging failure to enforce pollution reduction limits on the states.

Richmond Water Challenges

Indigenous peoples have been living in what is now called Virginia for some 12,000 to 16,000 years. Many used the river that came to be called the Powhatan, named to honor the chief of the Powhatan Confederacy, as an important resource for food, travel and defense.

The 348-mile-long James River offers near-endless scenic views. Photo by Phil Wilayto.

This longest river in Virginia begins in the Appalachian Mountains and flows 348 miles to the Chesapeake Bay. The first English arrived in 1607, bringing colonization, disease and a new name for the river: James, named to honor an English monarch who never set foot on the land he so freely gave away. The English chose the river’s banks for their colonial capitals: First Jamestown, then Williamsburg and finally, in 1780, Richmond.

Today, a third of the state’s population lives in the 10,000-square-mile watershed of the James. The river stretches across 39 counties and 19 cities and towns and is a major source of drinking water,- as well as a beloved site for recreational activities. However, despite its importance, the James has been made to withstand substantial abuse.

The Kepone Disaster

In 1975, news broke nationally that workers at a chemical plant in Hopewell had suffered poisoning. It was soon found that the plant, which manufactured Kepone, a toxic, nonbiodegradable insecticide, for more than 10 years had been illegally dumping waste into the James River. The effect on the river’s health was disastrous. Commercial and sport fishing were banned. By the time the bans began to be lifted in 1980, the fishing industry had collapsed.

Today the James is generally considered safe. However, because Kepone breaks down so slowly in the environment, it’s been found in recent years in specimens collected from the river. The monitoring of Kepone has been halted since 2009 due to budget cuts, and a 2016 study by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science at William & Mary found Kepone present in 65 percent of analyzed fish, although concentrations within the fish were below the FDA’s limit of 0.3 parts per million.

Since the initial Kepone pollution, a layer of silt has slowly developed that covers Kepone in the riverbed. Although unlikely, there have been worries that a disturbance of this silt layer could potentially cause the river to decline in health once again.

The Kepone disaster wasn’t the end of pollution in the James. For nearly a decade, the James River Association has given the river a health grade of B-. In 2021, the association scored the river 61 points out of 100, a fraction which typically would be converted to a grade of D-.

Raw Sewage in the James

The James River Association considers a number of polluting factors to be issues for the James, such as sediment pollution, which is caused by agriculture and land development, and high amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus, caused by stormwater runoff. However, these issues pale in comparison to an alarming one that has been unaddressed since the 1800s.

When Richmond experiences heavy rainfall, raw sewage flows into the James River. There are 25 sites where this occurs. Between 2014 and 2018, 11 billion gallons of untreated waste water went into the James, according to Combined Sewage System Records from the city.

The problem is the city’s Civil War-era sewage system. Older sewage systems direct sewage and stormwater to the same pipes. When it’s dry in Richmond, the pipes direct sewage to the waste treatment plant, where it is properly cleaned before it is released into the river. But when it rains, stormwater enters these pipes and combines with the sewage. If it’s a bad storm, the rainwater overwhelms the system’s capacity and the rainwater-sewage combination is released into the river, without treatment.

The overflows happen so frequently that the city’s Department of Utilities has created an online tool to allow residents to check whether sewage has entered the James in the previous 48 hours from any of the 25 sites, making those areas of the James unsafe for swimming or boating. With climate change increasing the frequency of severe storms, the problem has only gotten worse.

The state has given Richmond a deadline of 2035 to overhaul its sewage system and stop the overflows, but the job won’t be cheap. Calvin Farr, the director of Richmond’s Department of Public Utilities, has estimated it will cost the city $400 million to fix the problem. Mayor Levar Stoney proposes an even higher estimate, asking the state to help fund the project he says will take nearly $900 million to complete.

Last December, several organizations, including the JRA and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, filed a lawsuit against the county of Henrico, alleging that the county is in violation of the Clean Water Act by exceeding the legally permitted limits for discharging into the river.

Either another mass pollution event or simply the continual dumping of sewage into the James could result in major economic losses for both Richmond and the state.

In 2020, more than 2.1 million people visited the James River Park System, according to the city’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities. Based on the 2016 visitor count, a study conducted by Virginia Commonwealth University estimated that the park system has the potential to generate $33.5 million in yearly tourism revenue – revenue that stands to be lost should the river’s fragile health take a turn for the worse.

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