$50-million Proposed Settlement Announced Dec. 15, 2016, for Decades-old Mercury Contamination of South River from DuPont Facility in Waynesboro

On December 15, 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Department of the Interior, and the Commonwealth of Virginia jointly announced a $50-million proposed consent decree, or settlement, with DuPont over the company’s release of mercury into the South River in the 1930s and 1940s from a chemical factory in Waynesboro.  The amount of the proposed settlement is the largest ever in Virginia for natural resources impacts.  The South River is a tributary of the South Fork Shenandoah River, in the Shenandoah/Potomac/Chesapeake Bay watershed.  The proposed settlement was submitted to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia, will undergo a 45-day public comment period following notification in the Federal Register, and is subject to final approval by the court.  The settlement is available online at https://www.justice.gov/enrd/consent-decree/us-et-al-v-ei-du-pont-de-nemours-and-company.

south-river-foreground-joining-north-river-at-port-republic-dec16-09-2-used-grouper-12-16-16

South River (foreground) confluence with North River at Port Republic, Va. (Rockingham County), to form the South Fork Shenandoah River, Dec. 16, 2009.  This confluence is about 25 river miles downstream (north) of Waynesboro.

Following is an excerpt from the news release of the settlement,  Public and Environment to Benefit from $50 Million Proposed Settlement for Natural Resources Harmed by Virginia Dupont Facility; Officials Announce Largest Natural Resource Damage Settlement in Virginia’s History, U.S. Department of Justice, 12/15/16:

“The Departments of Justice and the Interior joined with the Commonwealth of Virginia today to announce a proposed settlement with DuPont valued at approximately $50 million to resolve claims stemming from the release of mercury from the former E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company (DuPont) facility in Waynesboro, Virginia.  Over 100 miles of river and associated floodplain have been contaminated by mercury in the South River and South Fork Shenandoah River watershed.

“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. ….

“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. …

“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. …

“Mercury released into the South River from the DuPont facility in the 1930s and 1940s continues to persist in the environment. Monitoring data collected over the last 20 years indicates that mercury levels remain stable, with no clear decreases over time.  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 [the following]:

*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 (in Warren County, Va.) 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.

“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.”

Additional sources:
DuPont agrees to pay $50M in record-setting settlement for river contamination near Waynesboro, Richmond Times-Dispatch, 12/15/16.
Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, “South River,” online at https://www.dgif.virginia.gov/waterbody/south-river/.

Additional news accounts of the settlement (most recent listed first):

South River settlement tension all about money, Staunton News Leader, 2/16/17.

Waynesboro ‘stunned’ by South River restoration plan, Staunton News Leader, 1/31/17.  [Excerpt: “Waynesboro city officials were critical of the draft restoration plan for the South River proposed by the trustees of the DuPont settlement funds in the formal comments the city submitted late Monday afternoon, requesting the trustees alter the plan to work directly with the city on a project.”]

People in Waynesboro Learn About Environmental Draft Restoration Plan, WVIR TV-Charlottesville, 1/10/17.

Community gets first look at Dupont draft restoration plans, WHSV TV-Harrisonburg, 1/10/17.

Public comment curbed at DuPont meeting, Waynesboro News Virginian, 1/10/17.

W&M aided in $50M DuPont draft settlement over mercury contamination, Daily Press, 12/20/16.  [Excerpt: “Years of research by a College of William and Mary ornithologist into toxic mercury’s effects on birds is a key component of a historic $50 million proposed environmental settlement announced last week between state and federal officials and the chemical giant DuPont.”]

Waynesboro Taking Next Steps in DuPont Settlement, WVIR TV-Charlottesville, 12/20/16.

DuPont agrees to pay $50 million to restore contaminated Virginia rivers, Bay Journal, 12/15/16.

DuPont agrees to $50 million settlement for South River mercury contamination, Waynesboro News Virginian, 12/15/16.

DuPont agrees to $50 million deal to clean up mercury pollution from Va. plant, Washington Post, 12/15/16.

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