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Fresh Water Mussels to Aid River Clean-Up

Pam Northam Ann Jennings
First Lady Pamela Northam and Secretary of Natural Resources Ann Jennings pose with the day's stars -- fresh water mussels.

For more than 20 years, a factory in Waynesboro dumped toxic mercury into the South River. Nearly 70 years later the plant’s owner, DuPont, reached a multi-million dollar settlement with the federal and state governments to remove it.

That’s done, and this week, students and staffers from various state agencies placed more than a thousand mussels – each about an inch and as half in length – on the river bottom where they’ll take in water and remove the nitrogen that pollutes it. Among those wading in, Virginia’s first lady, retired science teacher Pamela Northam.

“They are filter feeders," she explains. "They filter 15 gallons of water a day, which is amazing for these tiny little miracle-working mussels.”

Also on hand, Ann Jennings – Secretary of Natural and Historic Resources – who says the team will be back to check on progress.

“Each of the mussels is tagged, so Virginia Tech and the Department of Wildlife Resources will be able to come back and look for the mussels that we planted today to ensure that this project is successful in the long term.”

Amy Maynard with Virginia’s Department of Wildlife Resources was happy to raise public awareness of freshwater mussels, noting they’re a colorful and diverse bunch.

“Brook floater has like some green rays, and Chevrons have some amber color. Yellow Lamp mussel is very yellow, and then the Creeper and Triangle floater have a lot of brown on them.”

Already, Calvin Jordan at the Department of Environmental Quality, sees signs of recovery.

“We’re starting to see some trout survive the summers when they used to not, maybe some natural reproduction going on. Bugs that live in the rocks and gravel seems to have changed a little bit, so those are really good signs.”

And Waynesboro High School science teacher Kristin Tover says the project was inspiring for her students.

“I hope that they learn a little bit more about the effort that goes into restoring an ecosystem. This one thing that happened decades ago has lasting effects and just talking with them in the classroom I think it does give them a sense of hope that they can do something to help in the future.”

With funds from the DuPont settlement and other sources, similar efforts are underway statewide.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief