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How the Kepone disaster funded Virginia environmental groups

A headshot of McCarthy
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Gerald "Jerry" McCarthy author of “Blueprint for Going Green: How a Small Foundation Changed the Model for Environmental Conservation” is photographed on Wednesday, February 28, 2024 at his home in Richmond, Virginia.

Gerald McCarthy's new book is Blueprint for Going Green: How a Small Foundation Changed the Model for Environmental Conservation.

In 1977, an ecological disaster on the James River led to the creation of the Virginia Environmental Endowment, which offers grants to support environmental protection.

Gerald McCarthy led VEE for more than three decades.

VPM News reporter Patrick Larsen recently spoke with McCarthy about his new book, Blueprint for Going Green: How a Small Foundation Changed the Model for Environmental Conservation.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Patrick Larsen: What was the Kepone disaster and how did it lead to the creation of the Virginia Environmental Endowment in the 1970s?

Gerald McCarthy: The Kepone disaster was a shock to the Virginia system. Kepone was an insecticide. It was discovered being discharged into the James River, and that led to a federal trial.

The judge, Judge Robert R. Merhige, threw the book at them, and on February 1, 1977, the court accepted a voluntary contribution from Allied to put up $8 million dollars to start a new private nonprofit organization called Virginia Environmental Endowment.

It's not a disaster story, our story is not about — and my book is not about — the Kepone disaster. It's about what happened next. Almost all the groups you can think of today, like the Capital Region Land Conservancy, the Virginia Conservation Network, none of these groups existed. And it's one of our great legacies, I think, is that all these groups exist and are thriving.

[They] are holding both anyone who's thinking of discharging anything poisonous into the environment and the politicians — who are sworn by Article XI of the Constitution of Virginia [to] holding them all accountable for doing their jobs and not messing up the environment.

You write about the proliferation of environmental studies and public opinion surveys that sort of came about at this time. How did that work make a difference in public policy?

We were getting all this nonsense from Washington — the 1994 elections brought a guy named Newt Gingrich to power in Congress. And he started talking about a Contract with America and how we've got to reclaim our industrial might, because these environmental regulations were costly, burdensome, job killing. And we're talking with each other — and our board members came from a wide variety of nonenvironmental industries. They said, you know, “We don't hear this anywhere. Where is this coming from?”

So, to make a long story short, we said, “Well, has anyone ever done a public opinion poll, a survey of what people in Virginia actually think about the environment is important to them?” So, we decided to do it. We said, “Well, let's find out.” And we did. And the results were phenomenal. They showed overwhelming support for clean water, drinking water, water quality. And for politicians, it was a wake-up call to say this is a really popular subject.

What advice would you give to somebody who is interested in making a positive impact on the environment?

You know, there's so many opportunities today. If you have time, you can volunteer with any number of environmental organizations. They're engaged in doing the work that a lot of people don't have time for, but do appreciate. … Ultimately, we're doing all of this work to try to protect the only planet we have. We were given an opportunity to take care of it. And you know, we've done a middling job of that so far.

We've done great work in 50 years, but we still have plenty of work left to do.

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.