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Kepone Chemical disaster in Hopewell, Virginia, USA


Description:

Although Life Science Products (LSP) only operated in Hopewell, VA for 16 months, its production of Kepone caused damage in people and the environment for decades. In July of 1975, Hopewell made headlines for the poisoning of workers at the Kepone production facility [4]. Kepone is a polychlorinated hydrocarbon – the same chemical family as DDT. Almost all of the Kepone produced was sent to West Germany, where the chemical was used in the production of Kelevan, a pesticide [3]. Kepone was therefore registered as a component product in pesticide manufacturing (though it could function as a pesticide), but not as a pesticide for direct application [3]. This distinction allowed the production of Kepone to skirt regulations. LSP did not register with the EPA as a pesticide-producer, and when applying for permits, never mentioned the toxicity of Kepone.

Right after LSP started production in February of 1974, the Virginia Air Pollution Control Board began to notice unusually high levels of sulfur oxides near the plant. When the board began investigating the plant, they realized that LSP had not even applied for an air control permit, let alone one that would allow them to release sulfur oxides [3]. LSP had secured a permit to discharge 12000 gallons of industrial water per day into the sewage system, but did not mention the toxicity of Kepone when applying for this permit [3]. Hopewell’s water treatment plant stopped working after LSP started production when Kepone began to kill the bacterial digesters in the water treatment system [3]. When investigating, workers at the water treatment plant found Kepone at a concentration 5 orders of magnitude above the estimated tolerance of the treatment system [3].

All 148 employees of the plant were exposed to high doses of Kepone. Machinery at the plant was caked in up to ½ inch of Kepone, workers often handled Kepone without gloves, and workers had to walk through puddles of Kepone slurry [3]. When employees came home from work, they looked like they had worked in a flour factory, covered in high concentrations of Kepone [6]. The ventilation system at the plant released Kepone into the open air, where it was then spread around Hopewell by weather [3].

Workers at the factory developed tremors, vision issues, weight loss, mental health issues and infertility [3][7]. One worker became nearly blind for two weeks [6]. Families of workers at the plant also became sick. The daughter of the plant superintendent developed erratic eye movements and tremors, and the plant superintendent’s entire family had enlarged livers [3]. Because the workers were poor and working class, doctors and higher ups at the company blamed their symptoms on being drunks [6]. Employees did not always have the option to quit, as they had families support and the job paid well. Allied Chemical and LSP seem to have took advantage of socioeconomic class dynamics to ignore the plight of their workers and their families.

The EPA began to conduct tests in December 1975, but were focused on whether LSP had violated rules for registration of pesticides, or violated effluent permit rules, they were not concerned about worker health and safety [3]. OSHA also ignored a complaint by a former worker, and did not investigate conditions at the factory [3].

On July 24th, 1975, Virginia closed the factory after witnessing the health impacts from Kepone on factory workers [2]. 29 employees were hospitalized with Kepone poisoning [3] , and 70/148 workers had toxicity symptoms [5]. The state also had to shut down fishing in the James River for 13 years in order to prevent further exposure of local people to the neurotoxin [2][8].

Allied Chemical and LSP knew that there would likely be adverse health impacts from working with Kepone, yet continued its production without proper safety measures. Allied Chemical had knowledge of several health studies on mice and other animal species that found Kepone to be a highly cumulative toxin [3][5].

Victims of the irresponsible production of Kepone in Hopewell used judicial activism to hold Allied Chemical and Life Science Products accountable. The Commonwealth of Virginia itself filed a suit in March of 1976 against Allied Chemical and LSP, saying that they violated state laws when they discharged industrial waste into the James River without a permit [1]. Former workers filed a civil suit of $173 million against Allied Chemical, but they could not directly sue LSP because those who received workman’s compensation were legally barred from suing LSP [3]. 

In May 1976, Allied Chemical and LSP were charged with 1097 crimes for their violation of the Federal Refuse Act of 1899 and the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1972 [3]. Allied pled no contest to 940 counts, but was cleared of the charge that they participated with their subsidiary, LSP in the pollution of the James River [5]. Much of the fines Allied had to pay went to creating the Virginia Environmental Endowment, a nonprofit corporation that still advocates against pollution [3;6;8]. Allied Chemical paid around $3 million in worker settlements, and settled with 235 fishermen, seafood dealers and other seafood related business in the James River area [3]. LSP was fined $4 million, but the company was already defunct at that time and was unable to pay the fines [6]. As a result of this disaster, Virginia passed new strict regulations for the monitoring of toxic chemicals.

In 1976, the James River Association was founded in response to the Kepone disaster in order to protect the river and the people who care for it. Kepone is still in the sediment of the river, and was still found in fish until testing stopped in 2009 [2].

Although the James River is now a healthy river, the James River basin still contains more than 1100 chemical storage sites – 80% of Virginia’s registered toxic chemicals [2]. In addition, there are currently billions of gallons of coal ash in unlined storage ponds adjacent to the river [2]. After Kepone was banned in the USA, it was still exported and used to be used as a pesticides in banana plantations in French West Indies [12]. See related case in the EJAtlas. 

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Kepone Chemical disaster in Hopewell, Virginia, USA
Country:United States of America
State or province:Hopewell
Location of conflict:Virginia
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Industrial and Utilities conflicts
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Chemical industries
Agro-toxics
Manufacturing activities
Specific commodities:Chemical products

Project Details and Actors

Project details

-Life Science Products operated a plant producing Kepone for 16 months, from February 1974 to July 1975.

-All 148 employees of the plant were exposed to high doses of Kepone

-On July 24th, 1975, Virginia closed the factory after witnessing the health impacts from Kepone on factory workers [2]. 29 employees were hospitalized with Kepone poisoning [3] , and 70/148 workers had toxicity symptoms [5]

-The Commonwealth of Virginia itself filed a suit in March of 1976 against Allied Chemical and LSP, saying that they violated state laws when they discharged industrial waste into the James River without a permit

-Allied Chemical paid around $3 million in worker settlements, and settled with 235 fishermen, seafood dealers and other seafood related business in the James River area [3]

-A subsequent EPA report examined several methods to remove Kepone from the James River system, and found the lowest estimate of costs to exceed $3 billion and all alternatives to have a severe biological impact on the river.

Type of populationSemi-urban
Affected Population:>150
Start of the conflict:1976
Company names or state enterprises:Life Science Products from United States of America - company
Allied Chemical Corporation from United States of America
Relevant government actors:Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA),The U.S. Justice Department, National Cancer Institute, Environmental Protection Agency, Virginia AIr Pollution Control Board
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Ejos: James River Association (https://thejamesriver.org/); Virginia Environmental Endowment (formed as a result of fines against Allied Chemical, https://www.vee.org/)

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stageMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups mobilizing:Industrial workers
Local government/political parties
Neighbours/citizens/communities
Local scientists/professionals
Forms of mobilization:Artistic and creative actions (eg guerilla theatre, murals)
Development of a network/collective action
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Civil and criminal judicial responses;

Impacts

Environmental ImpactsVisible: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Genetic contamination, Soil contamination, Air pollution, Waste overflow, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity
Other Environmental impactsRiver contamination,
Health ImpactsVisible: Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide, Occupational disease and accidents
Potential: Deaths
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Loss of livelihood, Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment
Potential: Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures
Other socio-economic impactsThe closing of the James River constituted a legal ban on the taking of all shellfish
and finfish, with enormous economic consequences.

Outcome

Project StatusStopped
Conflict outcome / response:Environmental improvements, rehabilitation/restoration of area
Court decision (victory for environmental justice)
Court decision (failure for environmental justice)
New legislation
Project cancelled
Proposal and development of alternatives:In 1976, the James River Association was founded in response to the Kepone disaster in order to protect the river and the people who care for it.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Not Sure
Briefly explain:On July 24th, 1975 Life Sciences Products was closed by the Commonwealth of Virginia due to the health impacts of its product, Kepone. However, Kepone persisted in the river and marine life for decades. As of 2005, there have been no permanent health impacts on former workers at Life Sciences Products.

Sources & Materials

Juridical relevant texts related to the conflict (laws, legislations, EIAs, etc)

[11] Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1972.
https://www.epa.gov/laws-regulations/summary-clean-water-act

[10] Federal Refuse Act of 1899
https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/230502586.pdf

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

[4] The Legacy of Kepone
https://www.virginiahumanities.org/2016/12/the-legacy-of-kepone/

[5] Kidd, David E., and William M. Hadley. "Kepone: A Case Study of an Environmental Legacy." The American Biology Teacher 44, no. 8 (1982): 466-471.

[3] Michael R. Reich and Jaquelin K. Spong (1983) "Kepone: a chemical disaster in Hopewell, Virginia". International Journal of Health Services, Volume 13, Number 2.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6189792

[2] A Turning Point for the James
http://jamesriverassociation.blogspot.com/2015/07/a-turning-point-for-james.html

[1] KEPONE PRODUCERS SUED BY VIRGINIA
https://www.nytimes.com/1976/03/24/archives/kepone-producers-sued-by-virginia.html

[6] Foster, Richard. "Kepone: The 'Flour' Factory." Richmond Magazine. (2005).
https://richmondmagazine.com/news/kepone-disaster-pesticide/

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

[7] Kepone Poisoning of Workers 1976 Hopewell Virginia
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9l_d7ySgrlg

[8] Toxic Dust: The History and Legacy of Virginia’s Kepone Disaster by Gregory Wilson
https://vimeo.com/249314282

[9] James River Association
https://jrava.org

[12] Lessons of Kepone. By Jason Roop
https://www.styleweekly.com/richmond/lessons-of-kepone/Content?oid=14867822

Meta information

Contributor:Grettel Navas (ENVJustice Project) and Arielle Landau (BOLD Fellowship Program)
Last update10/10/2021

Images

 

The legacy of Kepone

Source: Image courtesy Richmond Times Dispatch. Retrieved from: https://virginiahumanities.org/2016/12/the-legacy-of-kepone/ [4]

In the 1970s, Hopewell declares its distinction as the “chemical capital of the south.”

Source: Daily Press Archive. Retrieved from: https://www.styleweekly.com/richmond/lessons-of-kepone/Content?oid=14867822