In July of 1975, national attention was drawn to the city of Hopewell Virginia when news broke alerting the public to the poisoning of workers at a factory that manufactured an insecticide called Kepone. The story ballooned into an environmental crisis when authorities found the James River and many of its species of marine life saturated with the chemical.
Gregory Wilson, professor of history at the University of Akron, is researching the history of the Kepone disaster as part of his fellowship with VFH. Thanks to a collaboration with the Library of Virginia, Wilson is doing a deep dive into the library’s archives and conducting oral history interviews with people from Hopewell and the surrounding area who remember the disaster firsthand.
Wilson sat down with Chance Lee, a UVA student intern at VFH, to talk about his research into one of the biggest, yet often forgotten, environmental crises of the 1970s and the city that lived through it.
Your areas of expertise and interest are quite varied. What drew you to Virginia and the Kepone disaster?
That’s a good question. The way I came to Virginia and Kepone was a combination of professional and personal interests. I grew up in Newport News and knew about this event, and as I became a historian I always had this project in the back of my mind, an idea I thought would be worth doing. I really wanted to branch out of Ohio and expand my interest in environmental history. It’s something I’ve been able to teach and do some research in, but never in depth. I started looking into the project seriously maybe one or two years ago, and I discovered that there wasn’t really anything out there from a historical perspective. I thought I might be able to fill that niche.
When you say that there isn’t anything out there from a historical perspective, what does that mean?
What I’ve found in terms of the research is that there are studies on the legal aspects of the events and journalistic accounts. There are plenty of studies of the effects of Kepone on fish, marine life, and other animals: whether the chemical causes cancer and things like that. From science’s standpoint, there have been explorations on Kepone’s effects. If you step out of the scientific bubble, into the humanities for example, there are no studies on the humanistic effects, the history. What happened, why it happened, what is the legacy and the lasting effects: that’s where I’m hoping to make a contribution.
And what did happen?
In the 1950s, a chemical called “Kepone” was patented by scientists working for a company called Allied Chemical. It was used as an insecticide starting in the 1960s. In 1974, Allied contracted the production of Kepone to a smaller company called Life Science Products. From March of 1974 to July of 1975, Life Science was the sole manufacturer of Kepone globally. That’s when most of the problems started to emerge.
It came to light that workers at the Life Science plant in Hopewell, VA were exhibiting pretty serious medical conditions. They had tremors, headaches, problems breathing, rapid eye movements, all symptoms of being poisoned by high doses of Kepone. When the poisoning news broke, Life Science was closed down by the state health department in the summer of 1975. That’s when all of the serious investigations began, and it was found that the James River had been contaminated from the area around Hopewell all the way to the Chesapeake Bay.
In December, then governor Mills Godwin shut the river down to fishing for several species when Kepone was found in the marine life. This prompted even more investigations and the concerns began to snowball into larger and larger questions. At the same time all this was going on, various lawsuits were launched against Allied Chemical and Life Science Products. There was an entirely separate legal story going on alongside the slowly unfolding environmental catastrophe. This resulted in a landmark federal case that Allied settled for $13.4 million dollars. $8 million of that went to create the Virginia Environmental Endowment which is still around today. By the early 1980s the legal side was settled, and by 1988 the fishing bans were fully lifted. But still, if you go to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality’s website today it’ll tell you there are still fish advisories for Kepone.
Kepone didn’t disappear. Over time the sediment in the river buried it. It’s still there, and it’s a concern that many still have. If, somehow, the silt was stirred up, we could be back where we were 40 years ago.
Who was in charge of enforcing regulations? Was no one paying attention?
That’s the crux of the issue, isn’t it? There are three layers of authority: local, state, and federal regulators and agencies.
At the local level, industries in the area would have to apply for a permit to dispose of chemicals in the water. Life Science Products apparently didn’t have one. The company basically dumped Kepone laden water into nearby sewer drains, and the only reason local authorities found out was when the chemical reached Hopewell’s water treatment plant. There, it killed the bacteria used to break down waste. Once the treatment system started failing, they traced it back to this little factory in Hopewell.
At the state level, the water control board was supposed to be responsible for monitoring water quality. They weren’t aware that Allied had been dumping into the James and they certainly didn’t know what Life Science was doing. Just before the news about the factory worker’s health broke, they came to find out that there were serious permit questions. Life Science, then, tried to get the proper permission while continuing to dispose of their Kepone waste as they were trying to fix the problem.
The EPA, of course, was responsible at the federal level, but they had no idea what was going on in the years the dumping occurred. Another federal agency, OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, was responsible for worker safety. One of the workers at Life Science Products went to complain to OSHA that he worked with the chemical and was experiencing severe side effects. OSHA, for whatever reason, thought the man was making a complaint about discrimination rather than safety. So, they didn’t follow up on the issue.
There were several layers where someone could have been proactive. Unfortunately, they either weren’t or acted too slowly until, that is, the workers were poisoned.
Then how did people find out about the poisoning at the factory?
It was almost by accident that anyone knew what was happening to the factory staff. Several workers got what people at the Life Science Plant called “the Kepone Shakes,” and they would tell new employees that they would eventually come down with them too. There is dispute about whether the two owners of Life Science knew this was happening and didn’t do anything. Some of the workers went to see local doctors about their symptoms. Most said that these people were suffering from ordinary tension and prescribed tranquilizers. That was the initial, local response to this problem. One doctor, a new resident from Taiwan, got one of these cases in his office, and thought there might be a poisoning issue. He sent a sample of the man’s blood to the CDC in Atlanta for testing. The CDC called this doctor back, and asked him whether the sample was tainted, whether someone had poured or injected chemicals into it. They had never seen a sample with so much chemical content before. The doctor called the state health commission and told them about the sample. They sent a state epidemiologist to investigate, and only then was the plant shut down. Had that doctor not seen that patient or not sent the samples to the CDC, who knows how long the problem could have gone on.
How did residents respond to all of this?
We think of these events as sort of starting and ending. They really don’t. The memory is still there because people lived through it. The legacy of Kepone is very present in Hopewell. Many of the people I’ve talked to have said that the incident was a wakeup call. In 1975, the James was already polluted. It was essentially used as a repository for all kinds of waste, permits or no. It made more people realize just what the condition of the river was and the potential harm of large scale use of pesticides and other chemicals. At the same time, from my perspective, there’s an effort by many citizens and leaders in Hopewell to come out from the shadow of Kepone. Hopewell and Kepone go together at this point, and citizens have been trying to reinvent the image of the city. This isn’t an easy task. The city is still a very industrial place. There’s been a huge effort, I think, by the citizens to clean up the James: to promote the site as a recreation space rather than the site of an environmental disaster.
The city wants to improve water quality, but wants to forget what happened?
It’s interesting. When you think about it, it’s almost a paradox. When I first went to Hopewell and asked about Kepone people were reluctant to talk about it. They’ve said to me: “well, why do we want to talk about this again?” Kepone brings up all the memories, the tension, and negative feelings. On one hand, it’s something people want to forget. On the other, there’s that drive to not let it happen again. Today, the event works in a complicated, contradictory way.
What do you say to those people who don’t want to relive what happened?
I usually start by chuckling. That breaks the ice. I tell them I understand. But, as a historian who is interested in environmental issues, I think this was an important event and something we can learn from. By learning more, I think we can move forward in a positive way to meet the needs of industry and the concerns about maintaining the environment. There is a mixed reaction, but people are willing to talk to me. No one’s said no to doing an interview with me yet.
What lessons can we learn today from Kepone?
As I look at it, one of the lessons we need to learn is that we shouldn’t assume organizations, whether public or private, are able to deal with problems. Government bureaucracies are there, corporations are there, but they don’t always act quickly enough to accomplish what we need. That human element is important. Someone needs to watch over our public leaders, and legal oversight doesn’t always cut it. We need to hold them to account on our own. That’s our civic lesson. The other lesson is there is an environmental awareness that we need to have about industrial and toxic chemicals in our world. They are pervasive and have been pervasive for generations. We as citizens need to be aware of this, and ask questions of our government and industries that makes these substances. People need to know what these chemicals can potentially do. They need the ability to make changes if necessary. I think there’s a lot of that resulting from Kepone, from this catastrophe. It’s unfortunate that it took a catastrophe for people to act, but progress is being made.
Finally, what has your VFH fellowship enabled you to do that you couldn’t otherwise?
My fellowship is part of a partnership between the Library of Virginia and VFH which is designed to allow scholars who need access to resources in the Richmond area to be housed there. From my office at the Library of Virginia, I can access the library’s archival records on a daily basis. Thanks to the archivists, I can even get access to documents that aren’t part of the regular collection. Also, for me, being in Richmond means having access to the people who remember the Kepone disaster and actually being able to conduct interviews. So far, I’ve spoken with former reporters in Hopewell, a local historian who works at the regional library, people in local government, some of the workers, and some of those who were involved on the legal side of things. My work would be much harder without VFH’s assistance. Without VFH, I wouldn’t have been able to spend this time or do this kind of research.
About Gregory Wilson
Dr. Gregory Wilson is a professor of history at the University of Akron. He is the author of Communities Left Behind: The Area Redevelopment Administration, 1945 – 1965 (University of Tennessee Press, 2009) and the co-author of Ohio: A History of the Buckeye State (Wiley, 2013). His most recent book project, Above the Shots: An Oral History of The Kent State Shootings, published in 2016 with Kent State University Press, combines oral history and traditional sources to examine the meaning and memory of the Kent State shootings.