In the Face of Proposed Cuts, Why Do We Even Need EPA? One Example: Kepone | WYPR

In the Face of Proposed Cuts, Why Do We Even Need EPA? One Example: Kepone

Apr 5, 2017


Photo of Howard Ernst at the site of the kepone disaster in Hopewell, Virginia.
Credit Tom Pelton

With President Trump proposing to defund and dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency, I thought I’d take a look at a bigger question: Why do we even need environmental regulations?

So I took a trip to the site of the worst environmental disaster in the history of the Chesapeake Bay: Hopewell, Virginia.

There, outside what is now a weedy lot beside a NAPA Auto repair shop at 501 East Randolph Street, back in 1974 and 1975 stood a small three-story building where a company called Life Sciences Products manufactured an insecticide, kepone.

The owners of Life Sciences had a financial incentive to rapidly manufacture 1.7 million pounds of this roach and ant-killing poison for a larger company, Allied Chemical.  Workers earning about $3.75 did not wear masks or gloves, and were told not to worry about the odorless white powder that coated their faces, clothes, and sandwiches at lunch.

“Workers began to get ill relatively quickly,” said Howard Ernst, an author of books about the Chesapeake Bay and professor at Gettysburg College who has been studying the case.

“They first started to notice that they would get shakes – what they ended up calling the ‘kepone tremors,’ Ernst said.  “And then they would slur their words, they would get headaches, and they would become irritable.  And what they didn’t realize at the time – but would later find out – is that they were becoming sterile and that there was a cognitive impact as well. They were having short-term memory loss and other factors as well.”

Seventy workers showed symptoms of poisoning, 29 were hospitalized and hundreds of local residents were tested and found to have the pesticide in their blood.  Because the company had flushed kepone down the sewers into the James River and Chesapeake Bay, fish were tainted with the pesticide as far north as New York.  Fishing was banned on the James for more than a decade. And in 1978, EPA outlawed the use of kepone in the U.S.

The little known part of the story, however, is that most of the kepone made here was not used in the U.S. It was shipped to the French West Indies for spraying on banana crops to kill a pest called the Banana root borer.  And the French government – despite the international scandal in Hopewell -- allowed plantation owners to keep spraying the poison on the fruit for another decade and a half.

Ernst recently visited the islands with his students to investigate the contamination there.

“We are talking about millions of pounds that were applied in Guadeloupe and Martinique and Costa Rica,” Ernst said. “It’s an order of magnitude that is hard to imagine the amount of land that’s contaminated.  We’re talking about 80,000 people living and breathing and operating on a daily basis on land that is highly contaminated with kepone, and will be for tens of generations into the future.  And literally, more than 10,000 people a day consuming dangerous levels of kepone, just in their normal lives, by eating fish, by eating local produce and poultry and the like.”

Even here in the James River, the shadow of kepone lingers in the sediment.  The Virginia Department of Health still warns fishermen not to eat large catfish from the James, because of kepone contamination. But on the day of our visit, we found a Hopewell resident, Ed Marshall, fishing with his family near a chemical factory. He said they eat catfish from the James several times a week.

“A whole lot of people fish down here,” said Marshall, 57, as he tended to his line.  “Half of Hopewell fishes down here.” 

So...why do we need EPA?  To protect Ed Marshall’s children and neighbors.