DuPont to pay $42M to settle South River mercury contamination, does not specify money for Waynesboro projects

DuPont to pay $42M to settle South River mercury contamination, does not specify money for Waynesboro projects

Source: http://www.dailyprogress.com, July 31, 2017
By: Bob Stuart

A federal judge on Friday approved the settlement for damages from DuPont’s mercury contamination of the South River, but did not order any of the $42 million settlement be used for projects in Waynesboro, including a much-discussed trout grow-out facility.

U.S. District Judge Michael Urbanski did note in his order, however, that those involved in the settlement “have pledged to to fully asses restoration activities directed at Waynesboro.” And, he noted, officials with the city of Waynesboro have said they want the consent document approved — regardless of whether any specific settlement funding is allocated to the city.

Waynesboro Vice Mayor Terry Short said the city is continuing to discuss the settlement with the trustees who wrote up the agreement.

“We are very pleased with how the city is positioned,” Short said on Monday, despite there being no guarantees that Waynesboro will get any of the millions of dollars included in the final settlement. “We are excited to continue our work with them (trustees) as we navigate the waters of how the funds are dispersed and awarded.”

It’s not clear why Short is “pleased” and “excited” with the city’s position, given the lack of any guaranteed funds for Waynesboro. City officials were at one time highly critical of the settlement draft for all but ignoring Waynesboro. But they changed their tune soon after informal talks began between some city officials and the trustees. It’s not clear what those talks consisted of or if the trustees have promised the city some kind of funding arrangement contingent upon the settlement’s approval.

Waynesboro was ground zero in the mercury contamination that occurred at the DuPont plant between 1929 and 1950. The mercury leeched into the South River and its banks. While there are no funding guarantees for Waynesboro, the settlement does call for DuPont to spend millions on renovations to a Front Royal smallmouth bass fish hatchery to compensate for lost fishing there — despite the fact that Front Royal is more than 100 miles from the origin of the contamination. Millions more will go to projects well outside Waynesboro’s city limits, with some potential projects taking place as far away as Central America.

Nonetheless, in his opinion, Urbanski said he could not conclude that the $42 million-plus cash settlement from DuPont with the federal and Virginia governments “is unfair, inadequate or unreasonable.”

In making his final ruling, Urbanski cited the effort that had gone into formulating the settlement amount, and “the cost, delay and uncertainty” that litigation would present in the case. If the consent order was not entered by the judge, the settlement would have come off the table and forced a potential lawsuit or new settlement negotiations.

Urbanski addressed a $2.5 million trout grow-out facility in Waynesboro, which had been proposed by the local Trout Unlimited chapter. The judge said funding trout specific projects “reduces monies available for broader water quality and fish habitat projects by that same amount” to $7.5 million.

He said spending money on projects that would improve water quality and habitat “for all species of fish in the South River ecosystem” does not run counter to the public’s interest.

At a June 2 public hearing on the settlement, several people spoke in favor of the trout grow-out facility. Urbie Nash, a Waynesboro resident and member of Trout Unlimited, spoke in favor of the trout facility. Nash stressed that money spent on mussels and smallmouth bass will not recreate lost fishing trips due to mercury contamination.

Urbanski said the settlement amount is “grounded on years of scientific study and detailed damage assessment efforts.”

In concluding his opinion, Urbanski said he found the consent agreement between DuPont and both the state and federal government to be “fair, adequate and reasonable.”

Other reaction to Urbanski’s approval of the agreement came from Anne Condon, one of the trustees of the settlement.

Condon, who works as a restoration biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the Fish and Wildlife Service and commonwealth of Virginia “look forward to working with interested stakeholders to implement the best projects to benefit the injured natural resources for the future enjoyment of the community.”

House District 20 Del. Dickie Bell, R-Staunton, who represents Waynesboro, said his only comment about the final approval was “to express my disappointment,” at the lack of Waynesboro-specific projects guaranteed in the final settlement. Bell said he had not had a chance to read Urbanski’s opinion.

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