The James River: Floods, Pollution, and the Potential for Toxic Soup in Virginia

Elena Franco

May 31, 2018

This post is part of a series about climate change and the increasing risk of floods releasing toxic chemicals from industrial facilities.

As one of America’s first colonies, Virginia has a long history of industrialization and its consequent pollution along its waterways. It also has a long history of floods. This combination provides a potential for toxic flooding, putting Virginia's population and livelihoods at risk.

The James River, named “America’s founding river” and spanning most of the state, is prone to floods, both flowing down the river and coming in from coast. Many of Virginia’s industrial areas lie on the banks of the river, contributing to significant toxic discharges and placing the river ninth nationally for chemical releases harmful to fetuses and newborns. In just one example from the late 20th century, Allied Chemical Company’s illegal dumping of kepone (a carcinogenic insecticide) into the James triggered discussions in Richmond and was featured in the legislative histories of numerous federal statutes, including the Clean Water Act (1972), the Toxic Substances Control Act (1976), and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (1980). Kepone is now outlawed, but a 2017 report shows that about two-thirds of James River fish still have reportable kepone levels in their tissues.

Sea levels are already rising, hurricanes are projected to be more intense and frequent in the mid-Atlantic, and development and increased intensity of precipitation over the last 30 years means that floodplains are expanding. Even as various government agencies and advocates work to reduce chemical discharges into the James River and revive its ecosystem under current regulatory regimes, the potential for toxic floods and their dangerous, if hidden, impacts increases.

This interactive map and the narrative descriptions below tell the tales of six significant flood events on the James River. While hardly a comprehensive list of all James River floods, they demonstrate Virginia’s historical vulnerability to floods and the increasing risk of toxic flood waters.

The 1771 Great Fresh (flood) is one of the earliest floods recorded in Virginia and occurred when it was still a British colony. Twelve days of torrential rains sent a wall of water barreling down the James River valley, quickly swallowing buildings, boats, animals, and tobacco plantations in its path. The deluge violently changed the face of the landscape, rising 45 feet above normal. As one observer noted (page 6), “In short no person can possibly conceive the horror of its appearance on Sunday evening last unless they had seen it.” One hundred fifty people lost their lives and more their livelihoods. The Great Fresh demonstrated the power and impact of floods and how recovery was intertwined with Virginia’s economic interests. While many people of all walks of life were affected by the flood, disaster relief funds obtained from the British government primarily benefited the tobacco industry.

By the early 1900s, the James River served an important role for Virginia industries, providing water for production, power, and transportation. In 1936, the harsh winter caused heavy snowfalls, followed by a harsh spring of thunderstorms and torrential rains in the Upper James River. The Flood of 1936's swirling waters invaded a number of towns in and around Rockbridge County and destroyed farmland, but the flood’s footprint extended to Richmond.  Many paper and textile industries with toxic byproducts were damaged by the rising waters, particularly in Buena Vista, with one death and over $3 million in damages. In Lexington, oil company storage plants were flooded. Although there was no tracking of this type of release at that time, the 1936 flood foreshadowed the potential risks of toxic flooding in the James River basin. The event all but ensured passage of federal flood relief and control measures in the Flood Control Act of 1936.

By the time Hurricane Camille reached Virginia in 1969, it had been downgraded to a tropical storm, and no one expected what was to come. But a confluence of weather factors kept the remnants stationary over Virginia for several days. The 1969 Flood utterly devastated parts of Virginia along the upper and middle James River, striking many counties that had also been particularly hard hit in the 1936 flood. Torrential rains, up to 30 inches in Nelson County, caused flash floods and landslides, with houses lifted off their foundations and hurled down the mountains. An entire layer of topsoil disappeared, taking with it crops and cattle. More than 150 people lost their lives. Rockbridge Country alone suffered $30 million in damage. Richmond was not spared, with the river cresting at 28 feet. This colossal flood demonstrated the power of nature in ways the nation had not expected – how could a hurricane making landfall in Mississippi cause such massive amage all the way to the Virginia coast?

The 1985 Election Day Flood provided another example of a Gulf Coast hurricane causing massive inland flood damage in Virginia, this time a “500-year event” resulting in at least 10 deaths and an estimated $800 million in damages. Again, destruction was focused in many of the same counties – Augusta, Rockbridge, and Lexington – hit in 1969 and 1936, and again floodwaters reached all the way to Richmond. By the 1980s, with increased concerns over pollution and toxic waste in Virginia’s rivers, flood reporting started to mention contamination and its consequences. In Staunton and Waynesboro, floodwaters invaded water treatment and sewage treatment plants, spreading contamination and carrying toxins from farms and industrial areas downstream. At one farm, insecticides in a storage building were swept away into the pastures, and the poisonous substances killed the cattle grazing there, without the farmer even knowing his fields were contaminated.

In 2016, two flood events struck Virginia. The June 2016 flooding in West Virginia and Alleghany County, Virginia, stemmed from a “thousand-year event” of extremely rapid and heavy rainfall. Waves of thunderstorms brought eight to ten inches of rain in less than 24 hours, resulting in 23 deaths and destruction up and down the path of the subsequent flash flooding, with burning houses floating down the river in West Virginia. In Covington, Virginia, heavy flooding knocked over oil drums, spilling their contents on the banks of the Jackson River, a tributary of the Upper James.

Flooding in 2016 from Hurricane Matthew  demonstrated Virginia’s vulnerability to flooding from the Atlantic in the tidal portion of the James River, where the effects of climate change and sea level rise have increased the risk. Although Hurricane Matthew did not make landfall in Virginia, it pummeled the southern Virginia coast with strong winds and heavy rainfall, flooding many heavily populated areas of Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Chesapeake, and Portsmouth. Much of the inundation was caused by deficient drainage from inadequate investment in stormwater systems. Saltwater inundation from flooding caused a major sewer line to break, spilling at least 2 million gallons of municipal wastewater, which is comprised of not only sewage but also wastewater discharges from industrial facilities. The spill caused the emergency closure of shellfish harvesting waters to avoid potential contamination.

Hurricane Matthew also laid bare the dangers of flooding and toxic waste in nearby North Carolina, where floodwaters covered hog and poultry concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) with feces dredged up from barns and open pits of hog waste, contaminating fields and surface water with harmful pollutants. While this toxic flooding occurred across the border, Virginia and other mid-Atlantic states with significant numbers of CAFOs are similarly at risk.

Interactive Map of James River Flooding

Virginia can neither run nor hide from floods. They come from the west along the upper and middle James River, and they come in from the east from the river's tidal areas. Almost 80 percent of 47 presidentially declared disasters since 1957 have included floods in Virginia. Reports of possible toxic releases during Virginia flood events are increasingly common, and we know from events in other parts of the nation, including Hurricane Harvey, that floodwaters expose a number of hidden risks. We know, too, that toxic substances are produced and stored in facilities along the James River and that the river will flood again. The state needs to act to ensure that officials are protecting the river and nearby communities from flood-induced toxic releases.

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