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What the Legacy of PCBs Means for Efforts to Protect Virginia’s James River from Toxic Contamination

Public Protections Chemicals Water

Earlier this year, the Richmond Times Dispatch reported that Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) scientists are working to reduce the daily flow of cancer-causing PCBs into the James River and keep the commonwealth’s water clean and safe to drink.

Polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, are toxic chemicals once used and manufactured by industrial facilities in Virginia and around the world during much of the 20th century. Companies used PCBs in a variety of products, including lubricants, electronics, light fixtures, and insulation. During manufacturing and waste disposal, PCBs were frequently dumped into rivers and streams and disposed of in landfills and other areas.

Unfortunately, these practices ended up posing significant threats to human health and wildlife. From cancer and low birth weights to neurological health issues, PCBs wreaked havoc on people and the environment.

Because of these hazards, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned PCBs in 1979, but their toxic legacy lives on in river sediments, leaks, and seepage from dumping grounds and former and current industrial facilities that have yet to be cleaned up.

Industrial facilities and pollution pathways

Industrial facilities, including those that used PCBs in the past, play an essential role in Virginia’s economy by creating jobs, producing goods, and generating revenue. However, their activities can also pose significant risks to the environment, including the James River, and the threats of toxic pollution haven’t disappeared just because some types of chemicals, including PCBs, are no longer in use.

The James River is a vital resource for the state, providing drinking water, recreational opportunities, and supporting diverse ecosystems. Unfortunately, industrial facilities in Virginia can release toxic chemicals into the river through various pathways, causing significant harm to the river’s ecosystem and human health.

One of the most common ways that toxic chemicals make their way into the James River is through direct pollution. Some facilities have permits to discharge treated wastewater and stormwater into the river. While this water may be treated to remove pollutants, it can still contain toxic chemicals in concentrations that may harm aquatic life and human health. Industrial facilities may also have storage tanks, pipelines, or other equipment that can leak or spill toxic chemicals, contaminating the soil, groundwater, and surface water.

Additionally, stormwater runoff from industrial facilities can carry pollutants and toxic chemicals into the James River. This can occur when rainwater washes over contaminated surfaces, such as parking lots, roofs, or outdoor storage areas, and carries the pollutants into the river. Old, abandoned industrial sites can also pollute rivers and streams this way, and the hazardous substances that leak or seep from these locations can include legacy chemicals like PCBs.

Air pollution is another way toxic chemicals end up in the James River. Certain industrial activities, such as coal-fired electricity generation, can emit mercury and other pollutants into the air. These pollutants can then fall to the surface of the James River, carried there by rain or snow.

The impact of toxic chemicals on the James River can be severe. These releases can harm aquatic animals, including fish and other wildlife, and can also impact human health. Exposure to toxic chemicals in the water can cause skin irritation, respiratory problems, and other health issues. Additionally, the release of toxic chemicals into the river can harm the local economy, as activities such as fishing and boating may be affected.

Toxic contamination of the James River and other waterways is also a justice and equity issue. The James River watershed and other areas of the commonwealth are home to several communities with high concentrations of marginalized populations that are overburdened by environmental hazards.

It is therefore essential for industrial facilities to follow environmental regulations and best management practices to minimize their impact on the James River. Regulatory agencies must monitor and enforce compliance with these regulations to ensure that the James River is protected.

Enforcement for environmental justice and health

Virginia has implemented various regulations and laws to limit the release of toxic chemicals from industrial facilities, and the commonwealth also has authority to implement the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act within its borders. However, enforcement and compliance with these regulations can be challenging, and many communities continue to be affected by toxic chemicals from industrial facilities, both current and inactive.

It is important to continue to support and prioritize the efforts of agencies like the Virginia DEQ because they play a crucial role in protecting natural resources and ensuring that everyone has access to clean and safe drinking water. Here are some reasons why:

  • Public health: Clean and safe drinking water is essential for maintaining public health. When our water is contaminated with harmful pollutants like PCBs, it can have negative impacts on our health, including increased risks of cancer, neurological problems, and developmental issues.
  • Environmental protection: Natural resources like waterways, forests, and wildlife are an essential part of our ecosystem and provide numerous benefits, including clean air, water, and food. Protecting these resources helps to maintain biodiversity, prevent erosion, and reduce the impact of climate change.
  • Economic benefits: Natural resources also provide economic benefits to communities, such as tourism, recreation, and agriculture. When these resources are contaminated or degraded, it can negatively impact local economies and result in lost revenue and jobs.
  • Regulatory compliance: Environmental agencies like DEQ are responsible for enforcing regulations designed to protect public health and the environment. Compliance with these regulations helps to ensure that businesses and industries operate responsibly and minimize their impact on the environment.

Overall, supporting and prioritizing the efforts of agencies like DEQ is critical to

ensuring that we protect natural resources, maintain public health, and promote sustainable economic growth for future generations.

By working together, industrial facilities, regulatory agencies, and communities can help ensure that the James River remains a healthy and thriving ecosystem for generations to come.

For more information on solutions to toxic threats facing waterways and communities in Virginia and beyond, read our blog and follow us on social media.

Public Protections Chemicals Water

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