Bill Carter, third generation fisherman, has worked the muddy James River now for 32 years, and it shows in his face, sun dried and cracked like the hull of the barge his wife has named Sea Wreck. To Carter, the reopening of commercial fishing on the river is nothing to excited about. "The story," he says, spitting a brown stream of Levi Garrett tobacco juice over the starboard side, "is that they had no business closing it down in the first place."
This week, Virginia lifted most of what remained of its five-year-old ban on commerical fishing in the James, a ban the Seafood Products Commission says cost the industry $18 to $20 million. But there are no fireworks exploding in Rescue; it won't really change things much anyway, watermen here say. Two of the most profitable catches, striped bass and croaker, are still off limits. Eel, another well-paying crop, must be quartered in fresh water tanks for 50 days before sale.
Watermen in Rescue say the relaxed ban isn't going to bring back many of the 1,600 Virginia watermen who lost their livelihoods in December 1975 when it was discovered that two chemical firms up river at Hopewell were secretly duming Kepone into the waters. Officials agree. "The marginal fishermen, the independents, just can't afford to fish if they have to throw a lot of their crop back," say Jim Wallace of the Seafood Products Commission.
Those who benefit, Wallace says, will be the ones who gutted it out, who borrowed money and harvested oysters or female crabs or whatever they could as the ban was gradually lifted over the last five years.
But, as Carter says, yelling over the drone of an old Chrysler flathead as he guns his barge through a dusk raintoward homr, "five years in the poor house is five years in the poor house . . . I told my wife a long time ago that I'd be rich by 50. Nobody ever said nothing about Kepone."
When then-Gov. Mills E. Godwinannounced his decision to close this central Virginia river, explaining that he "would be remiss as governor" if he didn't, official doomsayers from the state's Kepone Task Force said it would be two centuries before the toxic chemical was flushed form the food chain.
A Japanese firm offered to dredge the 42,000 pounds of the pesticide from the river's bottom for a billion dollars. A sign erected in January 1976 over the Lord Baltimore Inn in Richmond intoned the impact of publicity, assuring panicked customers that it sold only "Fresh ocena oysters. No Kepone."
And in the board rooms of Allied Chemical, the largest of the offending companies, lawyers were working on court suits that eventually saw them payout $13 million in federal fines and ecological endowments, thousandsmore to watermen and chemical workers.
Up and down the river, in fishing hamlets like Rescue, where the friendly old woman at the little white stucco post office says the population hovers around 300, watermen sold boats and oyster beds that had been in their families for years at a fraction of value. Some went on welfare or applied for food stamps, others went to work packing meat in Smithfield.
But at the Rescue Marina, where Carter's wife Jo pumped gas and sold the best -- and the only -- lunch-counter-grilled hamburgers in town, another kind of sign went up, this one distributed by the Virginia Seafood Council and memorized reverently by die-hard watermen, many of whom had defiantly slapped "Kepone Trukin" bumper stickers on their pickups. It read:
"A 132-pound person would have to consume 24,000 pounds or 72,000 meals of fish a year to be exposed to the amount of Kepone equivalent to that which caused harm to test animals."
Bill Carter, of course, was the one who had taped the sign to the refrigerator. A hometown waterman since he was kicked out of school at 14, Carter says today that he's "no educated man, but I know there's as much chemicals in the food you buy in the store as there is in the fish we take in."
Carter says his son Steve "will eat crabs 7 days a week if he can get them, and I never stopped serving my family fish either." And the state health authorities, he says, didn't know their seed oysters from their croakers anyway. "All them scientists were just looking for garts."
Other watermen, eating on soft-shell crabs or Jo's hamburgers at the lunch counter, claim as well that the Kepone scare was a farce. "ya lot of our catch was going up north back then," says Elliot Burton, a fisherman for 32 years. "You know how people are up there. They scare awful easy."
"After the ban started," says Sonny Gay, 20-year veteran, "the scientists came down from Richmond and took samples of my blood. Well, you know
I been eating nothing but seafood most of my life, but they didn't find a trace of Kepone in me.
"But, you know, they went up to Roanoke and took random samples fgrom people, and they were infected. Guess it was from all those pork chops and fried chicken they were eating."
Neither Carter nor the other remaining waterman are bitter, though. When you rely on nature for your fests, they say, you learn to expect famine, even if its brought on by the government. "A waterman is like a damn farmer," Carter says. "He has to go broke before he gets out of it."
Carter is still a long way from paying back the $15,000 he had to borrow to rig his boats for fishing the nearby Chesapeake Bay when the ban was first started. But when the ban was first started. But at least his eldest son Steve isn't working after school packing hotdogs at Luters' anymore, and business at his lunch counter and gas dock has about doubled since the ban on sport fishing was lifted in September.
Last night, Carter pulled in a fine test-haul of slimy green eels, and if the pump for his four new home-built cement holding tanks keeps working, he might go full throttle into harvesting the European delicacy that will bring 60 or 70 cents a pound. But even if his catches are good, he will still have to hold onto the eels for 50 days, then call the state health inspector to release them for sale. Carter's dealt with those inspectors before.
"Remember now," he says, his green eyes intense in their red frame of face. "Rescue ain't been rescued yet."