Too Much Sulfur Dioxide? Ah, Don’t Worry, It’s Just a Little Fine

AdvanSix chemical plant, Hopewell. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

Today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch has a story that illustrates the importance and need for vigorous local journalism, while also illustrating the limitations of local journalism due to the lack of seasoned reporters and editors.

The story deals with the violation of environmental regulations by a chemical plant in Hopewell. The plant, a cornerstone of manufacturing in Hopewell, has been there a long time, under at least three owners. It is huge, covering about 200 acres. It is the facility responsible for dumping Kepone into the James River between 1966 and 1975, when it came under court order for the practice. The current owner is AdvanSix, headquartered in Parsippany, N.J.

As reported by the RTD, the plant has been cited 66 times over the past eight years for violations of the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. According to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the company has violated the Clean Air Act “every month over the past two years.”

There have been fines. In 2013, the former owner was fined $3 million for violations. In 2015, that owner was fined $300,000 for more violations. The latest fine, in 2022 against the current owner, was for $50,000.

The article goes into some depth about the chemicals released and the amounts, along with a description of the health risks associated with specific chemicals.

The reporter tries to link the excessive release of chemicals to the overall poor health of the city’s population. For example, life expectancy for Hopewell residents is five years lower than the state average; cancer mortality is double the state average; and the rate of hospitalization for asthma is three times the state norm. However, public health authorities are reluctant to make an explicit link, citing the presence of other factors, such as poverty.

The article hints at a social justice issue, citing the proximity of two public housing complexes to the plant. However, that argument is undercut by the presence of more upscale housing nearby.

The article concludes with a description of the outrage and frustration of city officials that they had not been informed about all the violations.

My Soapbox

This is an important story and the RTD deserves credit for taking the initiative to review the file of citations for violating environmental regulations. But there are so many questions left hanging.

Chief among these questions is: Why has the company been allowed to get away with this for so long? A Virginia Department of Environmental Quality spokesman was quoted as describing the plant as “having patterns of noncompliance” going back to 1990. It is not as if regulatory agencies did not know about the plant’s noncompliance. “Since 1990, the EPA and the DEQ have had the company on their radar,” the article points out.

Following that up is: What could be done? The article points out, “The DEQ is slowly building a case to make the plastics producer comply with environmental rules. The state has the authority to file an injunction or fine the company. To do either, all that state lawyers need to prove is the potential for harm, according to a DEQ manager familiar with AdvanSix’s case.” What else is needed? Isn’t a “pattern of noncompliance” enough?

Then there is the matter of fines. Why have they been so piddly? An outside expert interviewed for the story dismissed the $50,000 fine in 2022 as amounting to nothing more than a fee. For a company that had enough profits to buy back stock, a $50,000 fine is not going to deter it from violating its permit requirements.

The people who should have been asked these questions are the DEQ agency heads and board members from prior administrations, as well as EPA regional managers from those time periods. However, the reporter does not seem to have thought to have made those inquiries.

A major company flaunting environmental regulations and emitting illegal amounts of dangerous chemicals into the air and water, endangering human health and creating dead zones in the James River, is an outrageous situation. The RTD has performed a public service in alerting the public to the situation. It is unfortunate that the reporter and editors did not follow up to get the story of why this situation has been able to persist for so long.

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30 responses to “Too Much Sulfur Dioxide? Ah, Don’t Worry, It’s Just a Little Fine”

  1. vicnicholls Avatar

    The same question could be asked of the State Dept of Elections and the Board of Elections.

    1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      What does the Board of Elections have to do with the environmental violations of AdvanSix?

  2. James McCarthy Avatar
    James McCarthy

    Whatever inertia or indifference clouded DEQ remediation it’s the governor’s problem. RTD is to be commended. Thankfully, investigative journalism (Pro Publica) and local print media (Cardinal News) are renewing the vitality of the First Amendment with novel organizations not dependent upon commercial advertising. BR ought to review its advertising inserts.

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      Should no media use advertising?

  3. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
    James Wyatt Whitehead

    Advansix has many problems including a present strike. This story sounds eerily similar to the American Viscose Plant in Front Royal that ruined the Shenandoah River.

    1. how_it_works Avatar

      aka Avtex Fibers, I remember hearing about them on the news on 92.5 WINC-FM all the time in the early 90s.

    2. Their containment ponds had the brightest colors I have ever seen in such facilities.

  4. how_it_works Avatar

    There are things that run like a Swiss watch.

    Then there are things that run like pretty much any organization in Virginia, be it private or public sector.

    It’s a cultural thing.

  5. Stephen Haner Avatar
    Stephen Haner

    I will never forget my first conversation as a reporter in 1976 with the mayor of Covington. I raised the issue of the gawdawful smell from Westvaco. “Smells like money to me,” was his response.

    1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      That was always the response from officials of the town of West Point, as well.

      1. Charles D'Aulnais Avatar
        Charles D’Aulnais

        Reedville too. One thing for certain, Virginia has its fair share of smelly towns that all say the same thing. Franklin paper. Chesapeake fertilizer. Hampton crabs.

        Along the lines of minor fines for major spills, HRSD’s sewer lines in downtown Hampton were susceptible to overflow in extremely heavy rains. The discharge was readily identifiable. They paid whooping $10,000 fines for years.

        They have a beautiful new pump station now. No doubt made possible by the money they saved between the fines levied and an appropriate one.

  6. James C. Sherlock Avatar
    James C. Sherlock

    These old industrial plants were built on rivers for at least three reasons:
    1. transportation of raw materials in and products out;
    2. they used a lot of water for cooling and in their processes;
    3. disposition of waste water.

    It is the last one that is the problem.

    There are modern steam stripping systems commercially available to clean the waste water of industrial plants. An example is a modular system from Koch Industries. To read about the applications, see

    Virginia can and should require such technologies at every industrial plant that needs them to comply with environmental regulations.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      Koch Industries? You’ll give the lefties on this blog the vapors just by using that name.

  7. AlH - Deckplates Avatar
    AlH – Deckplates

    Dumping of almost everything into the water and the ocean has been illegal and laws on the books for decades prohibiting it. Remember the Great Lakes, and how many chemicals and trash was dumped? Remember the ocean-going vessels and all that trash dumped in past decades? Lest we forget the abatement paint on the hulls of ships, killing everything below it just so it would not grow barnacles. It is actually dumb to throw stuff in the water, and those who do so are dumb or break the law. Nevertheless, I do not buy the article’s references to include… The undated EPA Region III letter to the CEO of AdvanSix Resins & Chemicals, LLC states, “EPA believes that AdvanSix may not have complied with the RMP Regulations at the Facility.” Not proof, just “may not” after citing all the references in the first paragraph listing of “regulations.”

    The one letter cited plus the conjecture of the article as if it was “de facto” is questionable at least. EPA and OSHA have been unfettered for decades, until last year’s Supreme Court Ruling reigning in their power and effectively telling congress to make the laws, not the U.S. Gov’t Agencies. EPA & OSHA have done a good job at cleaning up a lot of pollution. However, they have also been bullies, and the tone of the undated EPA letter mentioned above would indicate – “…a settlement….” It is another reference to just one side of the story. Bottom line: If they break the (pollution) law take em to court. If it is questionable or “may not…” have done something, then prove it with doing the right research. This one Richmond Times article does not capture the complete research and “rest of the story.” Therefore, I believe it is an opinion.

  8. Stephen Haner Avatar
    Stephen Haner

    We hate the plants. But we all love the products. Careful what you ask for. You will miss the products….I suspect the comparisons to the problem factories from decades ago are grossly unfair. Standards now are far, far tighter. I was told, often, when at Newport News Shipbuilding that if I emptied my coffee cup off a pier, it was a violation. Another change from 40, 50 years ago is I bet most (some anyway) of those reported violations were self-reported, and the issue fixed before DEQ or EPA got the email. But having worked inside such a place, with the environmental director a regular companion (we still talk), I guess I’m tainted. I ran a Chamber of Commerce committee filled with similar company environmental folks. I developed great respect for them. Over the years my respect for reporters has waned.

    NBC News is running stories to try to shut down a similar Louisiana plant, focusing on the “horrible” risk to students in a nearby school. What I see is an old plant, probably WWII at least, and a very new school that could have been built a couple miles away, but wasn’t. The people in that town will miss the jobs and $$$.

    1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      To your point, the RTD story notes that AdvanSix claims that many of the violations were self-reported and they have been fixed. The reporter did not say if those claims were verified, if she ever tried to do so. However, the violations keep happening.

      All in all, it was a pretty lame job of reporting. To give the reporter the benefit of the doubt, maybe the budget restraints the paper is under would not allow her the time needed to do the deeper investigation needed.

      1. “All in all, it was a pretty lame job of reporting.”

        Your criticism is valid, and if you had access to the details, you might have even more to be upset about.

        I have been writing to RTD for years about the reporting and left of center bias. In the end, my only option was to stop paying them.

      2. James C. Sherlock Avatar
        James C. Sherlock

        No money for editors, experienced reporters or sufficient staff to do the required in-depth investigation.

        My friend Frank Wagner, seeing that coming several years ago when in the Senate, told me that reporters were a pain in his rear but that Virginia and the General Assembly needed them and would miss them when they were gone.

        Indeed we do.

      3. Stephen Haner Avatar
        Stephen Haner

        I know how it works. The vast majority were probably self reported. And be sure there was a wide range in severity, so that’s another key question. The story does highlight some that seem serious. In 100 months over 200 acres, 66 incidents doesn’t mean any major health problem was created. Sounds like the staff is being diligent. Hey, no question, safety at these plants matters. We WANT them self policing.

        I can tell you Hopewell does not want the plant closed. Easy to predict that.

      4. energyNOW_Fan Avatar

        As a chem engr I can tell you the “Tennis Rule” for operating plants: “When in doubt, call it out!” In other words, operating plants should call into DEQ/EPA possible violations, and avoid the obvious temptation to hide it, which often has more serious fines. And the authorities generally want even fairly small releases reported.

        I do not know much about this plant but I do recall getting a snootful from a Front Royal plant years ago. I would tend to think Virginia in the past was not the paragon of eco stewardship.

    2. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
      James Wyatt Whitehead

      Good point about the jobs and $$$. As much as I detest American Viscose for polluting the Shenandoah River, I recognize that this plant employed 3,000 workers. Over the course of 60 years it lifted thousands out of rural poverty and into the middle class. That is worth something.

  9. Ronnie Chappell Avatar
    Ronnie Chappell

    Perhaps a second story is in the works.

  10. “Since 1990, the EPA and the DEQ have had the company on their radar,” the article points out.

    That’s more than 30 years. Is their radar broken?


    On the other hand, with 30 years in and no major fines or legal actions, maybe there is no “there” there…

    1. Stephen Haner Avatar
      Stephen Haner

      Every major plant of this nature is on their radar, and SHOULD be. The shipyard certainly was. Then there is OSHA.

  11. f/k/a_tmtfairfax Avatar

    Journalism has been feeding itself poison for decades. Any business needs to focus on the needs of its customers and potential customers. For most people, that means trying to report facts and put them together, even reporting inconsistencies and contradictions.

    Whenever, we had a unit on journalism in English class, we were always taught that in a news article, the writer should try to be as complete as possible and avoid showing her/his biases. What changed? The participation trophy crowd, totally focused on themselves and their emotional needs, forgot about the readers.

    I used to read both the morning and afternoon editions of the paper, starting when I was old enough to figure out most of the words. I used to listen to the news on the radio and watch it on TV. I subscribed to daily papers when I lived in Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa and Virginia. I watched cable news. But more and more often, I found the basic objectivity of the news being replaced with subjectivity.

    We stopped subscribing to the Post about 15 + years ago. We didn’t even think about subscribing to the News-Observer. I don’t watch MSNBC, CNN or Fox News. Spectrum puts on a semi-agnostic news channel that I watch from time to time. I read articles of interest from a variety of publications/sources on the Internet from many political perspectives. But I’d just like to find a news source that simply wants to provide facts. I suspect that, across the political spectrum, I’m far from alone. But I fear that there aren’t enough “journalists” with the needed level of self-discipline to staff such an operation.

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