CARBOCOAL, THE CLINCH RIVER, AND DEAD FISH – 1921

© Jerry F. Couch 

THE FEATURED IMAGE OF THE CLINCH RIVER SEEN ABOVE was taken in the 1930’s at a point between Carterton and Castlewood.  This photo illustrates the vital relationship between the river, croplands, and grazing lands

The August 30, 1918 edition of the World News of Roanoke featured an interesting article concerning events then taking place in Russell County:

CARBOCOAL PLANT IS BEING BUILT AT CLINCHFIELD

A plant for the manufacture of “Carbocoal” is being built at Clinchfield, Virginia near the junction of the Norfolk and Western and the Carolina, Clinchfield, and Ohio Railways. The plant, which is now in the preliminary stages of construction, will have a capacity of treating several hundred thousand tons of bituminous coal annually. The plans for the plant and grounds allow for an eventual capacity of 1,500,000 tons a year.

“Carbocoal” is the product of a new method of treating bituminous coal, whereby much greater quantities of valuable by-products are recovered, such as toluol [see note below], sulfate of ammonia, and valuable oils. These by-products are so valuable in munitions-making that the Ordnance Bureau is in co-operation with the Fuel Administration in the establishment of the plant. This new process of treating bituminous coal not only yields greater values in by-products, but gives a fuel which is practically smokeless and more satisfactory for many uses. Successful tests of “Carbocoal” by the United States Navy and two railroads promise much in the economy of fuel.

NOTE: In industry, toluol’s primarily use is as a solvent and paint thinner. However, it is also used in the manufacture of TNT which explains the government’s interest in the product. Toluol is highly toxic to humans and long-term direct exposure to the product or its vapors can cause illness and even death.

The Clinchfield Carbocoal Corporation had been chartered by the Virginia State Corporation Commission on July 27, 1918. Its president was Sherwood E. Hall, White Plains, NY. The company’s secretary-treasurer was Edward V. Bailey, also of White Plains, NY.

CARBOCOAL 1918

An article featured in the September 1, 1918 edition of the Richmond Times-Dispatch provided more details concerning the carbocoal plant, its products, and its cost:

BIG EXPENDITURES IN OLD VIRGINIA AND ELSEWHERE

Recent reports that the government will build a $5,000,000 plant for manufacturing war materials at Clinchfield, Va., have been confirmed in an official announcement that the International Coal Products Corporation, New York, will build a big carbocoal plant at Clinchfield. This plant will be established under the auspices of the government, and the government will buy the distilled products. Its first unit will have an initial capacity of several hundred thousand tons of coal and it is intended that the eventual capacity will be 1,500,000 tons. Contracts have been awarded for the machinery, which will distill coal in the recovery of toluol, benzol, naphtha, ammonia, creosote, etc. the residue to be manufactured into fuel briquettes.

Efforts were made to get the plant up and running as soon as possible. Employees with the required job skills were recruited both locally and statewide. The company’s workforce was well-paid for the time and place. Though dangerous materials were handled at the plant, most employees were very familiar with dangerous workplaces. Many had either worked in the mines, or had relatives or friends whose lives had been snuffed out by roof-falls, rib rolls, air that contained no oxygen, and explosions.

An example of hazards at the Carbocoal manufacturing facility can be found in the following article from the World News of Roanoke, VA dated December 30, 1921.

POLLUTION OF STREAMS THROUGHOUT THE STATE IS TO BE ABOLISHED

Movement to Ask the General Assembly for Remedial Legislation is Given Impetus by an Incident in the Clinch River at St. Paul, Va. — Countless Thousands of Dead Fish Given up by Stream Following Escape of Quantity of Acid from a Government By-Products Plant on Water’s Edge

Richmond, Dec. 29 — State game and fish officials will urge the general assembly at its approaching session to pass stringent laws prohibiting the pollution of the streams of Virginia. A recent incident has given impetus to the movement.

According to reports received here more than 5,000 pounds of fish were taken from the Clinch River at St. Paul, Va., one afternoon last week. Scenes rivaling the salmon rush of Alaska or the Cape Cod canning season were enacted in the little Wise County town following the escape of more than a carload of acid into the river from the government by-products plant located above Carbo on Dumps Creek.

Crawford’s Weekly, of Norton, gives the following description of the scene:

THOUSANDS OF DEAD FISH

“Attracted by the growing number of fish which continued to rise to the surface, crowds formed on the banks. As the fish began to increase, excitement prevailed. The waters turned a dark brown color in which the white bellies of the struggling fish glistened like gigantic pearls in the sunshine. By this time, eye-witnesses of the unusual scene declare that the river gave up countless thousands of dead fish. The dark waters seethed and boiled as the creatures beat the water in an effort to breathe. For an hour the crowds looked on in excited silence. On the banks of the stream, a few boys pulled some of the fish from the water with their hands. This act of the boys seemed to break the spell which had held the onlookers fascinated. A few minutes later the scene had changed to one of feverish frenzy in which men, women, and children raked the finny creatures from the water by the thousands. Fat bass and plump perch measuring from a few inches to two feet in length were soon piled high on the banks.

J. L. Jennings, cashier of the St. Paul National Bank, in commenting on the matter said:
“It was wonderful. You could have had a two-horse wagon load of fish just as easy as a dozen. I left home for a walk and ran into a friend with a great string of fish. I met people at every turn carrying loads of them. It sounds like a fairy story and looked like one, but it is true. It would be safe to estimate the fish taken here at 5,000 pounds.

“All along the river the people worked at raking the fish from the stream. At Castlewood more than 2,500 pounds were caught. Many people living in St. Paul and Castlewood refused to eat the fish, fearing that they would be unfit for consumption. However, hundreds of others ate all that they could at the time and have salted and stored thousands of pounds of the remainder.”

Commissioner Biltsoty, in recommending legislation to prohibit the pollution of the streams, says:

BILTSOTY’S VIEWS
“Some of the finest streams in the state have been defiled to such an extent that they are now destitute of fish. A recent survey conducted by the department showed no less than twenty-five streams above the tidewater so polluted by the refuse from various kinds of manufacturing plants that fish therein have either been killed outright or driven to other waters. Powell’s River, the Shenandoah, and North River in Rockbridge County, and the James are illustrations. The Shenandoah, once one of the finest bass streams in this state, is now almost a murky run and practically barren of fish. It is the same with North River. The waters of Powell’s River in Wise County are, at several points, of the color of ink, caused by the refuse dumped in the stream by tanneries and extract plants.”

This long-ago chemical spill at the carbocoal plant and the fish kill were precursors of two subsequent Clinch River fish kills that occurred in 1967 and 1970.  This writer witnessed both and he will never forget what he saw.

The 1921 fish kill also raises a provocative question: “What ELSE went into Dumps Creek and the Clinch River during the years of the plant’s operation?” One of the carbocoal plant’s principal products was coal tar creosote, which we now know is a cancer-causing agent.

Prior to the industrial age, few people were exposed to large quantities of carcinogens for extended periods of time. When manufacturing plants were built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they were deliberately located beside rivers and streams for easy disposal of industrial waste. The prevailing mindset was that our planet’s resources were infinite, and so was the earth’s ability to heal itself.

There was also a cynical corporate mindset that went somewhat like this:  “We’ll get while the getting is good, then take the money and run with it before the consequences come crashing down.” 

Over the years, the risks associated with long-term toxic exposure have been analyzed and statistically quantified.  In 1921, 1967, and 1970, aquatic creatures in the Clinch River warned us of that exposure with their deaths.


Note:  Portions of this article originally appeared in the Clinch Valley Times’ print edition in 2015.

 

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.