Sudsy Foam in the James River Not Seen as a Sign of Cleanliness

Chuck Frederickson, keeper of the James River, surveys an area of the waterway near Richmond. The mysterious foam is
Chuck Frederickson, keeper of the James River, surveys an area of the waterway near Richmond. The mysterious foam is "unnatural," he says. (David A. Fahrenthold - Twp)
By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 6, 2006

RICHMOND -- Sometimes the mysterious bubbly stuff on the surface of the James River looks like dirty chunks of Styrofoam or floating dollops of meringue. Sometimes it makes little silver-dollar-sized clusters, and sometimes it forms enormous strings stretching a quarter-mile.

On the most worrisome days, say those who know the river, it forms a carpet of beery-like suds from bank to bank.

"There's a ball of it!" said Chuck Frederickson, an environmental advocate who is the James's riverkeeper. He was on the shoreline just above downtown Richmond, and a white glob was sailing by in the current. "See that -- football-size?"

For weeks, the James's strange foam has been the subject of an environmental whodunit in Richmond, as scientists and state officials have tried to figure out what it is and why it's appearing in one of Virginia's most treasured rivers.

Whatever is causing it, environmentalists think the foam is a striking symbol of water problems across Virginia, where a new state survey has found that "impaired" rivers far outnumber those known to be clean.

"It's an unnatural thing," Frederickson said. "The river's out of balance."

Of the 14,282 miles of rivers and streams surveyed, the state found that nearly two-thirds, or 8,984 miles, were "impaired," a 30 percent increase from the amount found in the 2004 report. The James was among the dirty rivers on the list. It is impaired by bacteria and PCBs, industrial chemicals that can cause ill health effects.

Similar troubles have long extended across the Chesapeake watershed. Maryland's list of impaired waters includes sections of the Potomac, Anacostia and Patuxent rivers, among others. And a report released last week by the Natural Resources Defense Council found several contamination problems at beaches on the bay.

Foam is not a terrifically unusual thing to see on a river. Thrashing rapids can whip up white froth, and chemicals from decomposing plants can form bubbles on the surface. So Ralph White, manager of a riverside park run by the City of Richmond, said he hadn't been too alarmed when he'd previously seen bubbles on the James.

Then summer came, bringing more foam than he had ever seen: white, lacy bubbles, dirty brown wads, artistic-looking swirls of foam and slime. On one day, he said, the entire river looked like the runoff from a car wash.

"The foam had covered the entire river, from bank to bank, as far as the eye can see," White said. "It was clearly nothing that would be construed as natural."

The state began an investigation in June and quickly determined that the foam was not harmful to people. Beyond that, answers about what it is and where it comes from have been hard to come by.

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