Thurman Dykes first realized something was wrong after about a month on the job at Hopewell’s Life Sciences Products Co. chemical factory in early 1975. That’s when his body started shaking uncontrollably all day long — as did those of many other workers there.
Then 27, Dykes was one of about 130 men who worked over a period of about 16 months handling the insecticide Kepone, also known as chlordecone, a grayish-white powder that was the only product manufactured in a small three-story shell building tacked on to the back of an old gas station that Life Sciences used for offices. The stuff was used in roach and ant traps here, but most of it was shipped to places like Africa and South America to battle agricultural pests like fire ants and potato beetles. Life Sciences was the sole source of the world’s Kepone supply, making 3,000 pounds to 6,000 pounds per day.
“We loaded the chemical, unloaded it, barreled it up, tested it. … We didn’t have gloves [or masks], and it was just all over you when you breathed,” recalls Dykes, now 57 and living in Tennessee. Allied Chemical Co. produced Kepone from 1966 until 1974, when it contracted Life Sciences to exclusively produce Kepone.
Dykes worked at the Life Sciences plant as a second job in addition to his regular position at an Allied factory in Chesterfield County. There were usually about 20 men a day working for about $3.75 an hour at the Life Sciences plant over the busy two shifts. Overtime pay was easy to come by, and turnover was high, probably because of the health problems. The workers talked among themselves about their symptoms — including involuntary shaking, vision problems and joint pain — suspicious that the chemical was causing it. But the factory owners were almost never there, so there was no one to ask about it. Most of Life Sciences’ workers weren’t college-educated and had families to support — the job paid too much to quit.
The Environmental Protection Agency didn’t require monitoring of Kepone in those days. This was despite the fact that the pesticide DDT, a closely related chemical cousin to Kepone that was in wide use from the 1940s through 1960s, was banned by the United States in 1972 because of its health risk to humans and wildlife. A 1974 health complaint about Kepone made by a fired Life Sciences worker to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was never followed up on due to a “procedural error,” news reports would later say.
Doctors and others accused the men of being drunks. “They thought we was alcoholics,” Dykes remembers. “You know how somebody [goes] into DTs? They accused us of that, said we were nothing but alcoholics. Then the state … pulled those blood tests and found those high levels of Kepone in us.”
In July 1975, the state Health Department closed the Life Sciences facility. By the end of the year, 29 workers would be hospitalized, and Virginia Gov. Mills E. Godwin Jr. would shut down the James to all fishing from Richmond south to the Chesapeake Bay. Together Life Sciences and Allied made about 3 million pounds of Kepone, with Life Sciences making more than half of that. Environmental scientists estimated that some 200,000 pounds got into the surrounding environment, much of it winding up in the river. The national media descended: Dan Rather and 60 Minutes. Time Magazine. Congressional hearings followed. Kepone’s use and manufacture were banned.
In that slow news summer, Kepone — and for a brief time, the city of Hopewell, Va. — became synonymous with environmental disaster across the nation. Bumper stickers erupted reading, “Kepone Truckin’!” Three decades later, Kepone is still showing up in minuscule amounts in river sediment and fish, but it’s no longer a threat, scientists say, and in fact the river is healthier than it’s been in at least a century.
So how much of a public threat did Kepone really present? Looking back on it, some of the key figures in the investigation 30 years ago are talking about a new study into the long-term effects of Kepone on the 1975 Hopewell workers, while others say the whole thing was overblown.
In the months before the Life Sciences plant was closed, Dykes’ symptoms progressed to include a weeks-long bout of virtual blindness. “I got [Kepone] in my eyes. It just burnt my eyes so bad. It was like a big blur. … It went for almost two weeks before [the vision] started coming back.”
It was equally bad for his coworkers. One of them, Dale Gilbert, was sent by his doctor to see Hopewell cardiologist Dr. Yi-Nan Chou in June 1975. Gilbert had been suffering from chest pains, heart palpitations, slurred speech, dramatic weight loss and nervous tremors in his limbs and eyes, recalls Chou, now retired and the namesake for the critical-care center at Hopewell’s John Randolph Medical Center. “At the time [Gilbert] was frustrated [by] not being able to identify what was causing these problems,” Chou says.
After talking with Gilbert about his work handling the pesticide Kepone at Life Sciences, Chou became suspicious that Gilbert might be suffering from chemical poisoning. State labs weren’t equipped to test for the chemical, so Chou sent samples of Gilbert’s blood and urine to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. Chou also referred Gilbert to Dr. John Taylor, a neurologist at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Medical College of Virginia (MCV).
Now semi-retired, Taylor remembers Gilbert telling him about how other doctors misdiagnosed the symptoms as flu and how company people and others had accused workers of being drunk. “I don’t think any of them were alcoholic,” Taylor recalls. “These guys were working too much to be drunk.”
The shaking that Gilbert and the other workers experienced was made worse with movement. The more they moved, the more they shook. They had sore joints, difficulty breathing and opsoclonus (also called “dancing eyes syndrome”), an ultra-rare neurological disorder in which the eyes jiggle uncontrollably after moving. “You don’t just see opsoclonus every day. Some neurologists could go their entire career without seeing it,” Taylor says.
It didn’t take long for Taylor to also start asking questions about the pesticide made at Life Sciences. Taylor had never heard of Kepone, but after hearing that Chou had sent a sample of Gilbert’s blood to the CDC, Taylor became anxious to find out the results.
“The [employees’] wives told me that these guys came home looking like they had been working in a flour factory, and that was [a] 91 or 92 percent [mix of] Kepone [on their husbands],” Taylor says. “If you can kill insects with 2 or 3 percent, you’ve got to figure that certainly most professionals would have no trouble recognizing that this is not a good thing” for the workers to be so exposed to the chemical. “A simple inspection by an industrial physician would have stopped it. He would have shut them down that day.” But such inspections were not required under law back then.
“Based on the history given by Dale Gilbert, we had good reason to think we had an epidemic, because he said everybody else [at the factory] was just like he was, and [his symptoms were] pretty abnormal,” Taylor says. “We knew something was going on from the get-go.”
A few days later, Chou and Taylor got the CDC’s lab reports back. The CDC “called me back in a panic,” Chou remembers. Gilbert had extremely high levels of Kepone in his blood. (Gilbert’s blood had 7.5 parts per million (ppm) of Kepone, and other workers had levels as high as 11.8 ppm, whereas the state warning level today is 0.3 ppm.) Taylor immediately called the state epidemiologist, Dr. Robert Jackson. At virtually the same time, a CDC toxicologist in Atlanta also called Jackson with the news, telling Jackson that 1960s animal studies showed rats may have gotten cancer from the chemical.
Like Taylor and Chou, Jackson, too, had never heard of Kepone.
After talking with the CDC, Jackson drove to Hopewell to check out the Life Sciences plant, which was located on South Randolph Road. What he saw appalled him: The off-white Kepone powder was everywhere. “Most [of the workers] ate in common break rooms, and this dust accumulated on everything,” including the picnic tables they ate on. (“It was an inch or two inches deep everywhere you moved,” Dykes remembers.) Outside in the factory yard were “concrete-like balls” of the powder that had gotten wet and dried out in place, Jackson says. He saw several workers with the same symptoms as Gilbert, including the rare opsoclonus.
The next day, Jackson arranged for workers to see him and a nurse following the afternoon shift. “I got to examine a dozen or so of these people, and many of them had the same findings that Dr. Taylor was having” with Gilbert. “I drew blood on many of them. … Most of them had scratchiness and difficulty with deep breathing. Most of them had opsoclonus and slightly swollen joints and complained of pain and difficulty moving. Some of them had rashes.” They ranged in age from 18 to 50, but most were in their mid-20s to early 30s.
“I went back to my boss, the health commissioner,” Jackson recalls, “and I said, ‘How do we close the plant?’ ” After quick meetings with a state deputy attorney general, the next day, July 24, 1975, the Life Sciences plant was closed by order of the state Health Department. At around the same time, the Hopewell sewer system malfunctioned, sending raw sewage into the James River. Some mystery chemical was preventing solid waste from breaking down in the sewage systems’ digesters, special tanks that accelerated decomposition of solid waste. The situation was later thought to be caused by excess Kepone being dumped down drains by Life Science. State Water Control Board officials had already found massive amounts of Kepone in the Hopewell sewage system in winter 1974, but nothing was done about it. (Besides dumping excess Kepone into the sewage system, Life Sciences workers also disposed of it by dumping it in a big hole in a nearby field, Dykes says.)
Weeks later, the factory portion of the Life Sciences building would be razed to the ground under state orders while Dykes and other workers watched with mixed emotions from behind a fence. Their health symptoms were finally being taken seriously, but their livelihood was gone.
By November 1975, Dykes and 28 other Life Sciences employees ended up being hospitalized at MCV for Kepone poisoning for up to a week each. They then returned for monitoring once or twice a week for months afterward. About 130 Life Sciences workers had been directly exposed to the chemical during the 16 months that Life Sciences made Kepone, but only about 70 workers had shown symptoms of poisoning. The 29 hospitalized employees were worried and afraid, not knowing if they might die because of Kepone. (Many were also told they were sterile, which proved not to be true for some, including Dykes.) Test results came back showing elevated levels in the workers’ wives, children and pets, though none presented symptoms as severe as the workers did.
State epidemiologist Jackson then turned his attention to the populace of Hopewell, drawing a map with concentric circles leading away from the Life Sciences property. He personally tested about 400 people, finding measurable Kepone levels in the blood of residents half a mile away from the plant.
Under the Microscope
Meanwhile Gov. Godwin was trying to figure out what to do, as the public began panicking in the wake of press reports about Kepone. People stopped going to riverfront seafood restaurants, let alone dining or shopping in Hopewell.
Otis L. Brown, retired head of the State Fair of Virginia, was secretary of human affairs in the Godwin administration during the Kepone scare. He went to Jackson’s office on behalf of the governor to be briefed on the Kepone contamination. He was told that the exposure could be fatal for the Life Sciences employees. “They got my attention with that,” Brown says. About an hour or two into the crisis meeting, two federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) officials came in, one of them flipping through a thick folder. Brown asked what he was doing, and the OSHA official replied, “I’m trying to figure out which code we can file charges against the owners for this.”
“Boy, it irritated me,” Brown says. “Here we are figuring out whether people are going to die, and you’re figuring out who to charge. I’m trying to keep people from dying [and] they were looking for someone to blame. We didn’t have a very good meeting.”
Later, Brown says, federal officials went against the recommendations of scientists, lowering the recommended danger level for Kepone concentration in fish from something like 1.5 ppm to 0.1 ppm to ensure that they would shut down the fishing industry on the James as a consequence of the chemical disaster. The risks of Kepone were “so unknown [that] they said we’ve just got to err on the side of being safe,” Brown explains.
Around this time 60 Minutes came to town, and Dan Rather interviewed many of the principals, including Jackson, the state epidemiologist, who suddenly became a local celebrity, nicknamed “Capt. Kepone.”
But Rather also developed a local reputation for only looking for the facts he wanted to report. Taylor, the neurologist, and Drs. Robert Blanke and Philip Guzelian had been treating the men for a couple months, and through researching other chemical-poisoning cases, they’d become certain that the Kepone workers were going to recover without long-term consequences. But when Taylor told Rather their optimistic view, “he said he didn’t believe me and that I didn’t know what I was talking about,” Taylor says. Brown told 60 Minutes that he’d be interviewed only if his comments were not edited or rearranged; he was curtly told not to tell CBS how to do its business. Some say the 60 Minutes crew had to re-shoot a roadside scene in Hopewell because a car drove by and a passenger gave Rather the finger.
Attempts at Containment
By late 1975, studies were showing Kepone was being found in fish from the upper Chesapeake Bay. Air samples with Kepone were also showing up at Richmond’s Byrd Airport. Under public pressure and with only animal studies to go on that were inconclusive about whether or not Kepone was a carcinogen, Gov. Godwin chose to shut the James down to commercial fishing from Richmond to the bay. For at least a year, sport fishermen could only catch and release fish. Parts of the Kepone-related commercial fishing ban remained in place until 1988. Godwin, who died in 1999, “was a great old Southern gentleman who will have my ongoing respect,” Jackson remembers. “He lived right down there on that part of the James River. … He went forward and made a tough decision without equivocation, despite the fact that his closest friends were fishermen in Tidewater.”
Richmond-area grocery stores started putting up signs showing that their fish were caught out of state, though Taylor and others say you would have had to eat an incredible amount of Kepone-contaminated fish before you’d exhibit symptoms like the workers.
Dykes remembers Hopewell residents being angry with him and the other Life Sciences workers. “The James River was closed to any kind of fishing at all, and the people didn’t like it. The people said, ‘Y’all contaminated it,’ and I guess we did, but it wasn’t our fault.” He also remembers other Allied employees confronting him for moonlighting at Life Sciences and putting other local chemical plants at risk of closing because of the bad press.
Now a lawyer specializing in environmental law, David S. Bailey was a field biologist in the 1970s and the state Water Control Board’s lead investigator into the Kepone contamination. “It almost closed down the Chesapeake Bay” to commercial fishing, Bailey recalls. “It was that close.”
Bailey was one of the key witnesses whose testimony led to a $13.2 million federal fine against Allied Chemical for illegally dumping Kepone in violation of federal pollution laws, handed down by U.S. District Court Judge Robert R. Merhige Jr. in 1977. Represented by defense lawyer Murray Janus, Allied asserted that it had not contaminated the James River while it was the sole producer of Kepone from 1966 to 1974 before Life Sciences took over making it. Bailey went into the Water Control Board’s frozen-fish “library” seeking samples of fish caught in the James in the early 1970s, before Life Sciences got the Kepone contract. “Sure enough, they had heavy concentrations of Kepone … and [these fish were caught] before anybody even knew Kepone existed.”
The federal court also fined Life Sciences’ two owners $25,000 each and fined Life Sciences itself $4 million, but the company was already defunct at the time of the verdict and was unable to pay.
Congressional hearings related to Hopewell’s Kepone contamination started in January 1976. “I had to go before a Senate subcommittee in D.C.,” Dykes recalls. “I was shaking up there. I didn’t know whether I was going to jail or what was going to happen, but I guess I said the right words and they brought me off the stand.”
The country was especially wary about corporate polluters by then, as Kepone reports mixed with 1976 publicity of cancers and birth defects caused by toxic-waste dumping near the Love Canal neighborhood of Niagara Falls, N.Y.
Federal investigations into the Kepone and Love Canal incidents resulted in major changes in Virginia and across the nation. In 1980, the federal government created the EPA Superfund, providing federal jurisdiction and funding for major toxic cleanups. Virginia passed strict regulations for the monitoring of toxic chemicals. And at Brown’s suggestion, Merhige directed that the majority of Allied’s fine go to creating the Virginia Environmental Endowment, a nonprofit corporation still advocating against pollution. (Allied also settled lawsuits by Life Sciences workers and area fishermen for undisclosed amounts.)
“There were probably things that were overdone and things that were exaggerations, but that was a product of our lack of knowledge about Kepone,” Jackson says. However, he adds, if Kepone hadn’t been taken so seriously, many of the environmental protections we now take for granted wouldn’t have been implemented.
Thirty years later, most Richmonders under 35 only know Kepone as the name of a local 1990s alt-rock band.
In Hopewell, the old gas station that housed Life Sciences’ offices still stands. It’s now a used-car dealership, Wonder City Motors. The back lot, where the Kepone factory’s shell building was torn down, is a fenced-in dirt yard with patchy grass. Most Kepone reminders are long gone, though there are still two Kepone “graveyards” in Hopewell — fenced-off toxic-waste dumps marked by signs.Wonder City owner Carol Regan grew up in the Hopewell area. She took over the family car dealership after her dad died last year. The EPA used to come around and test the lot, but they haven't been by for years now. Regan’s health is fine. Same for everyone else who works there. She remembers when she was at Prince George High School and fans would chant, “You smell, I smell, we all smell Hopewell!” at sporting events as a dig against Hopewell’s chemical plants. She remembers popular Hopewell seafood restaurants that closed down in the 1970s for lack of business after the Kepone contamination. (“Would you want to go to a town that had seafood where there was a known poison in the river?”) She adds that many restaurants didn’t get their fish from the local rivers in the first place, but the customers still stayed away. “People didn’t want to have two-headed babies or something,” she jokes.
These days Hopewell is an economically depressed chemical-factory town with an aging population and a good bit of Section 8 housing, though it also boasts some great bass fishing and beautiful river views, especially at the confluence of the James and Appomattox rivers. There are antiques shops in the center of town, and the historic Beacon movie house is being renovated into a community theater. It’s a small enough city that most everybody knows everybody else, and they note with pride that the high school football team won the state championship a couple years ago. Some folks say Hopewell never really bounced back from the black eye it got in the Kepone days, though.
“Hopewell used to have a sign saying ‘Welcome to the Chemical Capital of the South!’ and after Kepone that came down really quick,” says Mark Haley, director of the Hopewell Regional Wastewater Facility. “Hopewell was ashamed of that legacy, and they’ve done a remarkable job [in turning that around] … to be leaders in environmental stewardship and that’s gratifying. They’re proud to be Hopewell again.”
Hopewell now has a state-of-the-art sewage plant and constantly monitors and works with local chemical factories to ensure that Hopewell won’t have environmental disasters again, Haley says.
Hopewell learned from Kepone and in some ways would be glad to see it forgotten. But not everyone is ready to let go.
Jackson, the former state epidemiologist, recently has been in contact with Virginia Health Commissioner Dr. Robert Stroube, who was Jackson’s deputy in the Kepone days. Jackson plans to meet with Stroube in the next month to discuss the possibility of studying long-term health effects of Kepone on the 1970s Life Sciences workers.
In 1995, Taylor, the MCV neurologist, contacted 14 of the 29 workers who were hospitalized in 1975, and none said they had cancer, while only a few were still having tremors. (Dykes was not among those called in 1995 and says while he does not have cancer, he shook until 1995, though he is now symptom-free.)
That was 10 years ago, on the 20th anniversary of the Kepone disaster. But 30 years tends to be the point when cancers start to manifest in humans after toxic exposure, Jackson says, and he’d like to know if Kepone causes cancer in people or not. Taylor agrees: “From a public health point of view, it probably would be good to know if this group of chemicals causes cancer, because I’m not aware that it’s been proven.”
Looking back, Brown, former state secretary of human affairs, says he, too, would like someone “to do an in-depth study of the impact, or the lack thereof” of the Kepone contamination, which he calls “probably one of the most overblown environmental events in our lifetime. … But at that time, no one knew. I’m happy it didn’t have the permanent, lasting effect people thought it was going to have. … It dropped off the radar screen when people didn’t drop down dead or lose their hair or drop their fingers off.”
No one died from Kepone poisoning. No one besides the workers and some of their family members were symptomatic. In fact, Brown points out the James River is healthier than it’s been in memory, which means the chemical couldn’t have been so much of a threat.
Others, however, say the river’s renewed health is due to the stricter environmental regulations that have prevented the river from becoming more polluted and that have allowed chemicals like Kepone to gradually dissipate.
“There’s an explosion of life like we haven’t seen in the river for 200 or 300 years,” says James River Park director Ralph White. “Last year I had a group of fourth graders, and we counted 75 great blue herons and we gave up. That gives you a sense of how rich the concentration of spawning fish is.”
Bald eagles are probably one of the greatest natural indicators of the river’s environmental health. As a predator, they accumulate great amounts of chemicals when they eat contaminated fish from the river. “Everything in the James River ecosystem ends up going down an eagle’s throat because of the food chain,” says Dr. Charles Blem, a VCU ornithologist. “In the mid-’70s, I used to take my ornithology class out, and we could not find a bald eagle. Now we find one every field trip.”
In fact, experts say the James River is now one of the best breeding grounds for bald eagles on the East Coast, with more than 400 pairs now, whereas they had almost disappeared back in the 1970s. Their eggs then became brittle and broke due to chemical poisoning from DDT — and possibly Kepone.
Money was never allotted to studies on eagles and Kepone in the 1970s. Dr. Mitchell Byrd with the College of William & Mary’s Center for Conservation Biology, which has conducted the state’s annual eagle census since 1977, says ospreys he tested on the James in the early 1970s had high levels of DDT and a mystery chemical that he says was “probably Kepone,” but their lab wasn’t set up to identify it. A 1977 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report showing elevated Kepone levels in an eagle is probably the only official report of Kepone in avian wildlife on the James during the disaster.
The state Department of Environment Quality, which absorbed the old Water Control Board in the 1980s, still tests the James River’s fish for Kepone every other year. The last time a Kepone level of concern was found in a fish was in 1995, but Kepone is still found in trace amounts in fish even today. The popular theory is that the Kepone’s buried in the river sediment and, though it might occasionally be disturbed by dredging or hurricanes, it’s dissipated enough to no longer be a health concern. In fact, some DEQ workers anticipate they’ll stop testing for Kepone in another decade or less.
Nevertheless, Kepone, a stubborn chemical that doesn’t easily degrade and that some say has a half-life measured in decades, remains in the James, the legacy of lax environmental regulations of the 1960s and 1970s.
“It’s still there, and most really persistent organic chemicals are like that,” says Alex Barron, coordinator of the DEQ’s fish-monitoring program. “No one knows how long it will take to truly see the end of it.”