DuPont deal would help rivers, fish hatchery

A state-run fish hatchery in Warren County would benefit from a large settlement reached between DuPont and government agencies over claims that the company dumped mercury.

The U.S. Departments of Justice and the Interior along with state government representatives announced on Thursday a proposed settlement valued at approximately $50 million to resolve claims that the former E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company plant in Waynesboro released the toxic metal. Mercury contaminated more than 100 miles of river and associated floodplain in the South River and South Fork of the Shenandoah River watersheds, according to information from the Justice Department.

In addition to a cash payment of more than $42 million, DuPont agrees to pay for the design and implementation of renovations to the Front Royal Fish Hatchery estimated to cost about $10 million. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries operates the hatchery in the Waterlick area of Warren County. An official with the agency referred questions about the settlement on Thursday to the state offices of the Secretary of Natural Resources or the Attorney General.

Shenandoah Riverkeeper Mark Frondorf said Thursday he remains “cautiously optimistic” about the settlement and the potential uses for the money.

“The $42 million is a lot of money and I’m not quibbling or quarreling over the amount of money at all,” Frondorf said. “And then on top of that is the money earmarked for the fish hatchery in Front Royal, and it sounds like they’re going to be doing a lot of work on warm-water fisheries – smallmouth bass and things of that nature – and so in some respects I think that’s good.”

The Department of Game and Inland Fisheries uses the Front Royal Fish Hatchery in the production of walleye and smallmouth bass fingerlings, according to information listed on the department’s website. The hatchery also serves as a distribution point for trout, catfish and other species to waterways in northern and northwestern Virginia.

“But what I’m concerned about is that the money is not going to be spent to really address the long-term health of the river,” Frondorf said. “In many respects, the smallmouth bass are just simply the canary in the coalmine and they’re indicative of a healthy or not healthy … river.”

DuPont released mercury from its facility into the South River in the 1930s and 1940s. Data collected during the last 20 years shows that mercury levels remain stable with no sign of decline, according to information from the Justice Department. Federal law aims to make the public and the environment whole for damage to resources resulting from the mercury releases.

A consent decree filed in the U.S. District Court in Harrisonburg outlines the terms of the settlement. The deal calls for DuPont to provide the money to government natural resource trustees, according to information from the Justice Department. The trustees will oversee implementation of projects intended to compensate the public for loss and damage to ecological and recreational services such as fishing access.

The trustees, through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the state, will collect feedback on actions to improve public lands and recreational resources and to restore river and wildlife habitat. A draft restoration plan and environmental assessment released today with a 45-day comment period resulted from stakeholder meetings that began in 2008 to determine how to compensate the public for damage to natural resources.

DuPont and the trustees have worked since 2005 to assess and identify potential restoration projects that would benefit the areas affected by the releases from the facility. Natural resources affected by the mercury releases include fish, migratory songbirds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals. The releases also affected recreational fishing opportunities.

The trustees plan to hold a public meeting at 6 p.m. Jan. 10, at the Waynesboro Public Library, 600 S. Wayne Ave., Waynesboro, to summarize key components of the draft resolution plan and to answer questions. Trustees intend to review and consider comments and to prepare the final resolution plan after the 45-day period.

Visit the Justice Department’s website at www.justice.gov/enrd/consent-decrees to view the consent decree.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com.