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Fertilizers, Chemicals, Poop and (Maybe) Coal Ash: What’s Plaguing the James River?

Here's why we haven't saved the river yet.


Capt. Mike Ostrander knows all the good eagle gossip.

From his small pontoon boat, which narrowly escaped the Richmond Yacht Basin fire in December, he’s been following the lives of five eagle families in a stretch of the James River between the basin and Deep Bottom Park downriver. Ostrander is intimately familiar with each eagle’s territory and habits, and his rendition of their lives can sound like the makings of a reality TV show.

One eagle couple got together after an epic battle with competitors of both sexes. Varina and Enon used to dance as they fished, Ostrander says, swooping around each other like conductors’ arms. “I get chill bumps thinking about it.”

He realized Varina had a new partner, whom Ostrander calls New Enon, when he saw them fishing together recently. “I swear, she was trying to dance with him, but it was just a hodgepodge of movement,” he says. “There was no fluidity to it.”

Ostrander has been taking people out on the James for 17 years. The eagles are the main attraction, but his passengers see herons, ospreys and cormorants up close. He catches fish to throw to eagles, sometimes getting them to swoop close to the boat. It’s work that Ostrander loves, and his business, Discover the James, is made possible by the return of large birds to the river — and that’s only happened in the last 30 years.

Mike Ostrander captains his pontoon boat on the south James, where he offers eagle tours that show off the natural beauty and history of the area, near where Dominion’s Chesterfield Power Station has its coal ash wastewater ponds. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Mike Ostrander captains his pontoon boat on the south James, where he offers eagle tours that show off the natural beauty and history of the area, near where Dominion’s Chesterfield Power Station has its coal ash wastewater ponds.

Stories of the James River in the 1960s and ’70s are legend. Sewage and factory pollution flowed directly in. Upstream agricultural runoff collected. The river smelled, and parks around it attracted drug dealers and prostitutes. No one swam, no one kayaked — and people definitely didn’t float down the river on inner tubes designed to hold beer.

A lot of different factors turned the tide. The Clean Water Act of 1972 gave states a template for reducing pollutants. And the 1975 discovery that the insecticide Kepone was flowing into the river from a Hopewell factory, which shut down fishing for 15 years, showed Virginians a clear economic impact to environmental degradation. The Public Utilities Department also cites more recent work done on Richmond’s antiquated sewer system.

“It’s crucial to understanding the resurgence of the James,” says Grace LeRose, program manager at the department. “Without the system, there would be no Brown’s Island, no James River Park System, no Rocketts Landing.”

Most people can agree that it’s best for Richmond to keep the James healthy — to make sure people like Ostrander always have flourishing businesses and to allow people to happily tube, paddle and play.

But the James River and its 21 creeks in the city are threatened on many fronts: from President Donald Trump’s proposed budget, which eliminates all funding for Chesapeake Bay cleanup programs, to state grant programs funded by the whims of the General Assembly, to antiquated coal-fired power plants, neighborhood associations and that neighbor who won’t pick up his dog’s poop.

Should we be concerned?

People enjoy the rocks and water near Pony Pasture. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • People enjoy the rocks and water near Pony Pasture.

On a recent, sunny Friday, flashing firetrucks blocked a lane of car traffic on the Mayo Bridge. After several days of rain, the James River, a murky, raging brown, was running high, and two people were swept away in separate incidents. Both were retrieved unharmed, but the city remained on high alert about the river’s wrath.

The next day, however, people were back swimming in the river, ignoring Richmond’s least known —or most flouted — truth: For a few days after a good rain, the river is filled with bacteria — largely from fecal matter.

Three days, the signs say. That’s how long you’re supposed to wait after heavy rains to swim, particularly if you’re near a combined sewer overflow outfall. The one most likely to overflow is near the Mayo Bridge on the north side, between the flood wall and the river, near an innocuous landing where kayakers and rafters often head to shore.

“I would never put my head under the river, dive under the river, even on a good day. I just wouldn’t want what’s in there,” says LeRose, trailing off.

“Between Rocketts and 14th Street, it’s just loaded with E. coli bacteria [after a rain],” says Jamie Brunkow, of the James River Association. The association has been testing for bacteria for five years, and Brunkow is always surprised by the number of volunteers who don’t know about Richmond’s poop-water situation.

As in many older cities, the advent of indoor plumbing hooked houses’ new wastewater streams into the city infrastructure for storm-water drainage. It’s all carried and treated together before being released into the river. Most days, it works fine, but heavy rains will overload the system and send the combination of rainwater and sewage spilling out into the river untreated.

The city has done a lot to decrease the overflow and clean Richmond’s wastewater, Brunkow says. Improvements are funded by state loans and grants, with help from Richmond taxpayers. In 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency, using the authority of the Clean Water Act, set maximum daily amounts for phosphorous, nitrogen and sediment that could flow into the Chesapeake Bay from its six-state watershed.

And since then, as part of that effort, Richmond and the state have invested $120 million in nutrient reduction programs at the wastewater plant, lowering nitrogen by 86 percent and phosphorous by 45 percent. “As soon as we finish one project, there’s another one waiting to go,” LeRose says. “It’s upgrade — continual construction mode almost.”

Patrick Bradley, water quality manager at the Public Utilities Department, says that the treated water coming out of the plant is almost drinking water. In Oregon, he says, they make beer out of it.

“Sewage [after it’s treated] to us is drinkable water,” says Bob Steidel, director of public utilities. “I can’t tell you the number of meetings I go to — when I say that, the citizens are just pounding on tables: ‘No, we’re never going to recycle water, we’re never going to reuse water.’ If we’re only going to reuse water once and throw it away, and then we make sewage and we use that one and throw it away, all we’re going to do is waste money.”

But, before Richmond dwells too much on the overflow of human fecal matter, city officials will emphasize that what makes the river particularly bad after the rain isn’t simply toilet sewage. It’s everything else that flows into the sewer and down creek tributaries — mostly animal excrement of every variety.

To meet goals set by the 2010 Chesapeake Bay program, improvements to wastewater treatment plants were easy targets — “low-hanging fruit,” according to LeRose. Only a little higher up the tree: stream restorations.

People protest coal ash leaks and pipelines at Capitol Square in October. Water quality issues have made headlines across the country this past year, including the Dakota Access Pipeline and drinking water contamination in Flint, Michigan. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • People protest coal ash leaks and pipelines at Capitol Square in October. Water quality issues have made headlines across the country this past year, including the Dakota Access Pipeline and drinking water contamination in Flint, Michigan.

One March day at Manchester’s Maury Cemetery, representatives from the Public Utilities Department led a group of people through a stream restoration project. A dozen participants walked along the 1,950 feet of bank on uneven mud that was covered by a burlaplike mat.

The department, smarting from a Reedy Creek controversy, wanted environmental groups and other stakeholders to see how a restoration could look. Department representatives patiently answered questions.

The anti-stream-restoration signs that dotted nearly every yard along Forest Hill Avenue in the fall have disappeared, and there’s little trace of the water infrastructure project that became a factor in the mayoral campaign.

“I think what happened at Reedy Creek,” LeRose says, “is people got out ahead of things, and it was a sort of ‘What if?’”

Last year, the Reedy Creek Coalition and allies successfully put a stop to a $1.3 million project there— half of which would have been funded by a state grant. The city wanted to take down a few hundred trees, reconstruct the eroded banks and plant new trees — all to allow a deeper and wider creek to flood more naturally, to slow and filter the runoff before sediment, nitrogen and phosphorous entered the James River.

The coalition said it knew the stream better than the department, and claimed the plan wouldn’t work for a number of reasons. It was high-risk and low-benefit, members said. It was a difficult hypothetical for the department to counter, so at Maury Cemetery administrators wanted to show an example of a stream project done well.

The city’s stream restoration projects are part of the federally mandated plan to reduce pollutants flowing into the Chesapeake Bay. The plan represented years of work by Bay advocates and politicians, and projects were funded by grants from the state Department of Environmental Quality. Reedy Creek sat at a confluence of a goal-oriented bureaucratic machine and the reality of local politics.

Storm water is more complicated than wastewater, LeRose says. It’s about the unknown detritus swept off the land and into the watershed when it rains — leaves, trash, oils and detergents. Storm water is the biggest source of surface water pollution in the nation.

One charge leveled against the Reedy Creek project was that it didn’t do anything to mitigate the upstream problems that exacerbated runoff. It was using an engineering solution for an engineering problem — to overcome earlier, ill-advised priorities in urban infrastructure.

“You’ve got go back into the early 1900s,” Bradley says. “The whole idea was to get the water out of the city as fast as possible.” That meant the creation of sewers and concrete channels that quickly ushered storm water to the James. “Fast forward 100 years, those are all bad ideas.”

But removing concrete channels and mandating green infrastructure on private property are politically difficult tasks. And LeRose says they can’t take the stream back to pre-Columbian times. “This is the world the stream lives in. Using engineering, you can design the stream to take what it receives,” she says. “Not what it received 200 years ago, but what it receives today.”

“Stream restorations are a very good thing,” Brunkow of the river association says. “They can be the right tool when used appropriately.” But Reedy Creek highlighted that the opposition of the local community, no matter how well-intentioned, can work against you, he says.

Both sides agreed that the real problem is that 30 to 40 percent of Reedy Creek’s watershed consists of impervious surfaces — rooftops, roads and other infrastructure that don’t allow water to filter through soil and tree roots. Rather, water gushes down the narrow streams that can’t handle the load, collecting all kinds of things along the way. The city received authorization in March for a $1.3 million interest-free loan from the state to evaluate alternatives to impermeable pavement surfaces in city alleys — a small step toward addressing the root of the problem

Stream restorations, like wastewater improvements, are also low-hanging fruit: They’re usually contained projects a city can accomplish without expending political capital —although the Reedy Creek case is an exception. The Public Utilities Department completed Maury Cemetery and has more on the docket at Stratford Hills’ Rattlesnake, Fawnbrook’s Pocosham and Manchester’s Goode creeks. However, this year the Virginia General Assembly didn’t add funding for the Stormwater Local Assistance Fund to pay for future stream water restorations.

An old channel of James River dead-ends in the Dutch Gap Conservation Area near the Chesterfield Power Station. Hot water flows into the inlet, and the James River Association, among other groups, say there is coal ash leaking into the river here as well. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • An old channel of James River dead-ends in the Dutch Gap Conservation Area near the Chesterfield Power Station. Hot water flows into the inlet, and the James River Association, among other groups, say there is coal ash leaking into the river here as well.

Moving upstream past Hopewell, the James River twists and turns like steep mountain switchbacks, creating bulbous peninsulas of land. Early European colonizers would sail miles to get a few hundred yards closer to what would be Richmond.

Now, channels cut into the river have shortened the boat ride and turned peninsulas into islands. And, in the case of the old channel around the Dutch Gap Conservation Area, the river dead ends at Dominion Energy’s Chesterfield Power Station, Virginia’s largest fossil fuel-powered plant.

Deep in the old channel, the air becomes stifling. There’s a palpable change in temperature, and the water temperature is in the 90s. Yellow signs warn against swimming because of the power plant’s hot water discharge. It’s why power plants often are located on the water: They pump it inside to cool their operations. It’s not polluted when it comes back out, but it’s hot.

“In wintertime, sometimes you see fish back there,” says Brunkow. “But for the majority of the year, the water is so hot that you have a drop in diversity [and] you have no fish. There’s just nothing there because it’s too hot for them to live.” He adds that the heat impact isn’t completely understood. It’s as much a concern to Brunkow as pollutants, but Dominion has a permit to release the water. There’s nothing that can be done except to monitor.

So coal ash has become a primary focus of environmentalists and river watchers.

The James River Association says it found “Superfund site levels” of arsenic in the river this year, as well as high levels of iron, boron and hexavalent chromium. Some of those findings are confirmed by a 2016 Duke University study. Dominion and the state’s Environmental Quality Department say they have found no such evidence.

When coal is burned, ash is produced. At the Chesterfield plant, for years, it was mixed with water and the slurry was packed into unlined storage ponds. With permits from the state, a diluted, treated version of that water can be discharged into the river.

To Brunkow, it’s simple logic — not a surprise — to find leaks. The concentrated, chemical wastewater has collected for 60-some years, and rain washes it into the river. “It’s not like a dam breaking open and coal ash coming out in a torrent,” he says. “These are slow seeps that have been occurring for many decades.”

Brunkow alleges two sources of pollution: the water removal process used to close old ponds and groundwater leaks from the ponds. “Both are a big deal in their own right,” he says. “It’s the difference between a short-term burst of pollution versus a long-term trickle of pollution.”

A disastrous coal ash spill in Tennessee in 2008 and another in North Carolina in 2014 led the EPA to mandate the closure of such ponds. Dominion is building a lined pit to comply with new standards, but the fate of the existing coal ash wastewater is uncertain. The General Assembly recently passed legislation to put a yearlong moratorium on capping the ponds until information is collected about alternative disposal plans. Organizations such as the James River Association hope Dominion will be required to move the existing ash to lined ponds.

Because of potential ash leakage and sewer bacteria, one concern is the many commercial and recreational anglers in boats and along the banks of the James. The Virginia Marine Resources Commission has jurisdiction over commercial fisheries, but it doesn’t require watermen to report the location or timing of the catch, only the river from which it comes and total pounds harvested.

“It’s definitely a concern if you’re consuming a lot of fish from the river,” Brunkow says.

Trinity Episcopal students swim and paddle to school in the West End last year. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Trinity Episcopal students swim and paddle to school in the West End last year.

Nineteenth-century American explorer John Wesley Powell suggested that state boundaries should be determined by watershed, not arbitrary lines of latitude and longitude. The watershed, he said, was a natural political boundary — it defined a group of people with a shared ecological interest in the water supply.

Can Richmonders prize and protect their portion of the James and Chesapeake watershed? Both Bradley and LeRose suggest that the most effective storm-water and green-water infrastructure comes with the choices that developers and homeowners make. Hence, the department focuses a lot on education, such as its RVAH2O campaign.

“If people wanted, they could redo their house downspouts and everything else, and never have to water their lawn,” Bradley says. “There’s more than enough rainwater to take care of all of it, but you have to make that connection to realize that you can use your rainwater for something other than piping it down the driveway into the street.”

LeRose doesn’t think more legislation or regulation works. “Maybe I’m getting crotchety in my old age, but I just think it’s better to get in someone’s head and convince them that it’s the right thing to do,” she says, citing the anti-littering campaign of the 1970s. “I think you have to change first the mind, then the behavior.”

Advocates might disagree with that.

Brunkow credits the Clean Water Act for giving government a framework for curbing a number of pollutants, such as those in the Chesapeake Bay.

“The act is critically important,” he says. It’s national legislation that can be enforced on a local level. “And the local level is the most important piece, because it’s where you can actually make things happen.”

Even if the federal act disappears tomorrow, legislators and Virginia law can uphold it. Like Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s recent push to regulate carbon pollution that contributes to climate change, states and municipalities don’t need federal mandates to keep their water clean.

An aerial view of the James River as it runs along Interstate 95 in the South Richmond. Several quarries are visible. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • An aerial view of the James River as it runs along Interstate 95 in the South Richmond. Several quarries are visible.

Walter Gills, the clean-water financing and assistance program manager at the Department of Environmental Quality, notes that most of the stream-restoration projects and wastewater plant upgrades are funded by state grants and loans. This year, he says, only $28 million of the $130 million clean-water revolving-loan funds given out were federal. “And that’s one of the few things at EPA that doesn’t look like it’s going to get cut,” he adds.

That is not to diminish the significance of Trump’s proposed cuts. As the Virginia executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Rebecca LePrell, points out, the bipartisan Bay legislation and funding pumped millions of dollars into programs that cleaned the estuary via nonprofit and foundation grants.

“I believe the bigger picture is that it will be even more difficult for the state to make up the difference and provide all the monitoring support, coordination and science that will be lost if the EPA [Chesapeake Bay program] were to go away,” she writes in an email. “We need the state to continue to invest in cost-share programs that help reduce storm water and agricultural runoff, and finding money for that is already difficult enough.”

One example, LePrell says, is the lack of funding this year from the General Assembly for the Stormwater Local Assistance Fund — from whence future stream restoration money might come.

The truth is, all residents in the James River watershed bear varying levels of responsibility for storm water runoff, wastewater use and pollution from electricity generation. “Everybody needs to do their part to clean up the water in the Bay,” LeRose says.

Capt. Mike Ostrander is doing his part by helping people discover the river and its ecosystem. Today, though, the eagles won’t swoop for his fish.

“You’d think I was throwing out coal ash,” he jokes. S

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story said that permits to discharge treated coal ash wastewater from the Chesterfield Power Station came from the county. They come from a state board.