Marshall Parker used to come home from the small chemical plant here wih a powdery white substance caking his work clothes and dusting his body like a fine flour.
His wife made him change clothes in a spare room and insisted on throwing his soiled garments into the trash.
Today, almost five years to the day that health authorities shut down the small plant as a health hazard, Parker is convenced that his wife's fetish for cleanliness probably saved him from a prolonged illness. The plant where he worked, actually an old gasoline station, made Kepone, the obscure pesticide blamed for one of the worst environmental disasters in Virginia's history and a chemical that a federal judge saw a symbol of corporate recklessness.
For Marshall Parker, now a 28-year-old high school coach, the worst of Kepone -- "the shakes," as the workers called the erratic eye and body movements it caused -- are gone.
"I was worried that I might be sterile, but I've got a little girl now who's 11 months old," he says.
But for Hopewell and much of Virginia, the effect of adverse publicity over the Kepone controversy has remained, casting an unwelcome glare on the town that once called itself the "Chemical Capital of the South."
The roadside sign with that slogan is gone, as is the Kepone plant that poisoned more than 70 workers, polluted the James River and crippled the state's fishing industry. Yet Hopewell and its 23,000 inhabitants still depend on the manufacture of chemicals for economic survival.
Located where the James and Appomattox rivers join 30 miles southeast of Richmond, the town boasts five huge chemical plants. They rise along the river banks like giant industrial jungle gyms, their tanks and gleaming silver smokestacks burping yellowish, foul-smelling discharges into the air.
"The Kepone plant was regarded as just another business until all the trouble," says Tim Giroux, owner of an industrial painting company that now occupies the old plant site.
The discovery on July 23, 1975 that the pesticide was being produced in unsafe conditions drew a lot of attention to the operations of other chemical plants in Hopewell -- "a lot more than the city wanted," Giroux says."Since then, the Environmental Protection Agency sticks pretty close."
Federal and state agencies have Hopewell's Kepone scare "permanently engraved in their minds," says Clinton H. Strong, the town's city manager. The resulting scrutiny has been annoying to the town and its industrial benefactors, he admits, "but it's made our environmental consciousness much higher than it was before."
There are also other reminders of past mistakes. A partial fishing ban remains in force on the James and a few former plant workers continue to complain of headaches, dizziness and nervous disorders. Even some of those who appear to have recovered worry about the possible lone-term effects, such as cancer, from their exposure to the pesticide, which is a suspected carcinogen.
Kepone was the patented ant and roach pesticide product of the Allied Chemical Corp., which had manufactured it in Hopewell since 1966. In 1973, it contracted out the work to the Life Science Products Co., which sold Kepone -- its only product -- to Allied for 64 cents a pound.
Within a short time, workers at the Life Science plant began suffering the tremors, stuttering, anxiety and liver damage that would later be diagnosed as symptoms of Kepone poisoning. Neither plant officials nor most local doctors took the complaints of sick workers very seriously at first.
"There were two guys I worked with whose hands were shaking so much they couldn't light my cigarette when I asked them to," recalls Parker."The doctor gave them nerve pills."
During all that time, local, state and federal health authorities seemed to function oblivious to the increasing contamination. The small plant stayed open, even after the Virginia State Water Board discovered it was dumping thousands of pounds of the toxic chemical into the city's sewers. Life Science workers continued to breathe in the chalky dust, some even packing Kepone containers with their bare hands.
But for the aggressive action of two young physicians, Kepone might have had even more tragic consequences.
Dr. Yi-Nan Chou, a Taiwan emigrant and heart specialist who was then new in town, suspected that one of his patients was suffering from Kepone poisoning. He sent off blood and urine samples to the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, which notified Virginia's environmental services office.
Alarmed by the laboratory reports, Dr. Robert S. Jackson, the office's director, paid a surprise visit to the plant on July 23, 1975, and immediately ordered its Kepone dust-filled buildings closed after finding still more sickened workers.
"At least a dozen plant employes had gone to various doctors with Kepone poisoning symptoms, and the doctors kept treating them with valium and librium," Jackson said in a recent telephone interview from South Carolina, where he is now state health commissioner. Jackson, who left his Virginia post as deputy commissioner after criticizing Gov. John N. Dalton's failure to modernize state environmental health programs, says the Hopewell incident should have taught the state and the chemical companies a valuable lesson.
"I think the state, Allied and these other firms may finally start to look at the long-term costs of environmental irresponsibility and decide it costs less to be responsible," said Jackson.
Allied, which still employs about 4,000 workers to make nylon at its Hopewell plant, admits to paying out more than $15 million in damages to the state, the town and former Kepone workers. One suit by 7,400 Virginia watermen is still pending. The Life Science firm, formed by two Allied workers, went bankrupt and its officers were fined.
U.S. District Judge Robert R. Merhige, whose $13.2 million fine he wanted to deliver a warning to every businessman in the nation. "I hope that after this sentencing every corporate officer will think 'If I don't do anything (about pollution), I will be out of a job,'" said Merhige, who also imposed $25,000 fines on the two former Allied employes who created Life Science.
Merhige later reduced Allied's fine to $5 million after the company agreed to donate $8 million to an environmental trust fund, and reduced the fines against the Life Science officers to $10,000 each.
And a Kepone task force has warned it may take two centuries before the James River is free of the toxic chemical, whose production is now banned anywhere in the U.S.
Virginia watermen are still up in arms over the fishing ban which is expected to last until 1985 and covers most of the river's species. Catfish regarded as something of a local delicacy, is one of the few fish exempt from the ban, much to the delight of some fishermen here. But participants in the annual bass tournament here still have to throw their catch back.
Hopewell has since built a new facility for treating sewage, about 90 percent of which comes from its chemical manufacturers. But even the threat of an EPA suit over that plant's operations has failed to dissuade some residents of the town who feel the Kepone dangers were exaggerated.
"I don't really think anyone is all that afraid of it anymore," says Janice Johnson, who worked at the Kepone plant with her two sons.
She says workers who got sick did not use "personal hygiene" and often came in from the production shacks and ate lunch without washing up. Neither she nor her sons have ever experienced any Kepone-related problems, she adds.
"I think you can make it safely, and I don't think they should have banned it when there was never a fish killed and when no one has died," Johnson argued.
After the plant closed, Allied and state health officials moved quickly, tearing down the pesticide complex and carting the contaminated structure and the grounds around it off to be buried. More than 30 of the most seriously exposed workers underwent repeated blood tests and painful tissue biopsies to monitor the degree of damage. They were also given a special drug that helped speed the elimination of Kepone from the body.
But former Virginia health official Jackson worries that the long-term effects of the contamination may not be known for 15 to 20 years, particularly since scientists have yet to decide if Kepone is a cancer-causing substance. State researchers recently announced plans to do follow-up medical tests on 32 of the poisoned workers to see how they are faring.
Whatever the future physical risks, Jackson says the former Kepone workers have already suffered so much psychological stress over cancer and sterility fears that " most of them have not fully recovered and may never."
Although the exact amounts remain secret, several workers collected sizeable settlements from Allied after their Kepone ordeal. Few of the former plant employes live in Hopewell today.
"It was good money, and that's all they think about," says Marshall Parker, trying to explain why the men kept working at the Kepone plant despite a deep-seated concern that it was making them sick.
"There would be no town without the chemical industry," he said. "The big dream of the majority of the kids I teach is to go work for the plants and make big money." Parker himself was weighing a permanent supervisory job at the Kepone plant at the time it was shut down.
Hopewell's city manager, Clinton Strong, calls the chemical industry the "safest" in the country. He wasn't around for the Kepone scare five years ago but knows he would not have overreacted by taking the "Chemical Capital of the South" sign down.
Says Strong, "We are what we are,"