March 10, 2021

Virginia Pollution: A Beautiful Landmark Battles Pollution

By Jessica Wen

The James River is a prominent landmark in the state of Virginia. It serves drinking water to 2.7 million state residents, provides recreational and economic opportunities, and is home to countless species that make Virginia unique. However, this Virginia landmark often harbors trash and other pollutants. With an arduous history of pollution due to human waste, trash, and chemicals, the James River watershed was barred from reaching its full potential of production and beauty. Virginia pollution will continue to be a problem without better legislation and the dedicated work of environmentalists like you!


The most notable environmental disaster involving the James occurred in 1975. Only three years after the Clean Water Act of 1972 passed, Kepone, a harmful insecticide, was found in the river at dangerous levels. The chemical caused workers near the river to fall ill from the exposure to the neurotoxin, so the state government put a commercial fishing ban on the watershed that lasted for 13 years. This devastated the fishing industry and, consequently, many Virginia residents.

The insecticide poisoned people who lounged on the river or who consumed seafood originating from the watershed, along with having a tremendous impact on the wildlife. For example, the eggs laid by eagles who ate fish caught in the river were so brittle that they were crushed by their parents. Dumped into the river for over a decade by Hopewell’s Allied Signal Co. and Life Sciences Products Co., Kepone had devastating effects on the state that have lingered for many years. During the 13-year ban on commercial fishing, the chemical settled into the riverbed, and layers of sand and gravel were able to bury it, reducing the contamination level in the water.

The health of the James River is not just a cause for the environmentalist, but also for anyone who relies on the river body in any way, whether it be economic purposes, recreational activities, or for drinking water.

However, even before the discovery of Kepone, the James River was already extremely polluted. Many of the activities we see people doing on the river now would have been infeasible in the past. The James, a cloudy brown color from erosion runoff and scattered with trash and fecal matter, repelled visitors and, thus, diminished its worth in people’s eyes.

The color of the water is a way to distinguish a healthy river from a sick one. The cloudy brown that used to characterize the James River watershed indicated a high level of sediment runoff. Especially after a big storm, dirt and sediment can prevent aquatic animals from finding food and vegetation from getting the sunlight necessary for growth.

Since the start of the efforts to restore the health of the James River, many trees have been planted along the waterway and local cities have developed strategies to contain the stormwater. Farms have also started utilizing strategies to control dirt and sediment runoff, including fencing in their animals, leaving riparian buffers, and planting cover crops in the winter.

Another contributing factor to the contamination of the James River is the antiquated wastewater treatment facility that dated back to the 1800s. Richmond had a combined storm and sanitary sewer system, so both stormwater and waste were treated by the same facility before being released into the river. This system often worked well; however, after heavy storms, the system would overload, and the untreated sewage and rain would spill into the James.


Luckily, after the Clean Water Act passed with a targeted focus on sewage. Under the influence of this new initiative, the state began to introduce new ways to improve the water quality by preventing sewage from spilling into the river. Strategies that proved successful include the construction of a sewer overflow pipe underneath the canal beds, the separation of stormwater from wastewater, increased storage capacity, and an upgrade of the wastewater treatment plant.

The last main contributor to the pollution of the James River was the excess of nitrogen and phosphorus that was running off into the river from farms and residential areas. Crop and lawn fertilizers spawned overwhelming algae blooms that monopolized all the oxygen that the aquatic wildlife in the river needed to survive. To reduce the levels of these nutrients, the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) imposed water-quality limits on each locality near the river. Additionally, in 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency set maximum daily amounts of phosphorus and nitrogen that could flow into the watershed. The state was able to make these new limits by utilizing the same strategies employed to prevent sediment and dirt runoff: planting cover crops, fencing in animals, and protecting riparian buffers. Additionally, farmers were encouraged to effectively and strategically apply fertilizer to reduce runoff.

Only about 50 years after the height of the river’s contamination levels, one of the most polluted rivers became one of the most improved. Thanks to the effort of the government, restoration agencies, and devoted Virginians, the river is now recognized as a state treasure. A hub for recreational activities, including fishing, sunbathing, canoeing, and kayaking, the river has also welcomed back many species of animals with its newly cleaned and safe water. Bald eagles, herons, and Atlantic sturgeons are just some examples.

The 2019 State of the James, a report card published every two years that summarizes the ongoing efforts to restore the river, gave the watershed a B-, the highest grade in many decades. However, regardless of the level of progress the state is making, there is still much to do to restore and protect the river. Currently, it is at risk of toxic storage units, coal ash, and crude oil that travels along the shore each week. But with the help of devoted Virginians, legislation is currently underway that will continue the progress we have already seen in the past 50 years.


It is important to remember that state agencies that employ these policies need to be held accountable: so, become a Wild Virginian and get involved in the many ways to maintain the integrity of Virginia’s Water Future. Ensuring that Virginia pollution becomes obsolete will take dedication and work!

Sign our petition to support Virginia’s Clean Water Future!