Novelist William Styron came back home to Virginia this month to mourn the death of a childhood friend. Much of the broad, muddy James River -- "the absolute and dominating physical presence of my childhood and early youth," he called it -- is moribund, a victim of chemical wastes. The James, Styron told graduates at Virginia's 204-year-old Hampden-Sydney College, is a geological treasure, an "irremedial rip across the fragile membrane" of the earth's surface. Its ruin by the industries that line its banks is, he said, "the most catastrophic environmental event of the century."

For many Virginians, including some at top state government positions, Styron's message may have seemed overdrawn. It was, after all, nearly five years since a state health official ignited the controversy over the James by closing the tiny chemical company that had made the now infamous white, powdery Kepone, the pesticide that had fouled the river.

To many in the small chemical town of Hopewell, the impact of Kepone had been exaggerated by the national news media. Allied Chemical Corp., the industry giant that created the pesticide and allowed it to pollute the James, had paid severely for its misdeed. Much of its $8 million in fines had created a large environmental fund for the state -- proof, some said, that Allied was indeed "the good corporate citizen" that former governor Mills E. Godwin had pronounced it in 1975 when the furor erupted.

Chemicals were Hopewell's mainstay, and suggestions for sharp restrictions on the industry were immediately and consistently ridiculed by townsfolk. Their sentiments were succinctly expressed in a bumper sticker that appeared on many vehicles there: "Kepone Trucking," it read.

Hardaway Marks, the town's longtime Democratic state legislator, went to Richmond with the same message. "Don't kill the goose that laid the golden egg," he pleaded with his fellow legislators at the time.

But if Styron's commencement address was ill-received by some on the day he gave it, May 11, he did not have to wait long for his thesis to be tested. Two days after his speech, Henry D. Garnett, a state judge in Newport News, ruled that Virginia's ban on fishing in the lower James was illegal.

Acting at the behest of another influential Virginia legislator and 15 water men who were his clients, Garnett held that the state health department was guilty of sloppiness in failing to hold hearings into its repeated continuances of the four-year-old fishing ban. Within hours of his action, water men began to return to the lower James, pulling in blues, crabs and the like, confident as many had always been that the mighty James was too big for any one chemical to ruin.

The fishing ban, first invoked by Godwin in December 1975 and renewed repeatedly by his successor, John N. Dalton, had devasted many of the James' water men. Despite the prohibition, they had returned to the river, fished and ate the catch themselves.

"Most everybody is eating it," said one Newport News water man who participated in the lawsuit against the ban. "We commercial fishermen know we can eat the fish without being hurt . . .," agreed a seafood packer in Portsmouth.

Dalton initially seemed content to let the issue run its course through the courts. But then a state supreme court justice refused to overturn Garnett's order and the governor was told that more and more water men were back on the James.

Was Styron wrong?Had the James somehow been purged of a Kepone curse that was supposed to last for decades?

The answers that Dalton provided indicate that Styron was correct. The James, the governor said, is once again closing the river to fishing, remains fouled. Fish being taken there have three times the permissible levels of Kepone, a suspected carcinogen. Under those conditions, Dalton said, invoking his broad executive powers, "I have no other choice but to protect our people" with a fishing ban. p

In the end, some of the Virginia water men agreed. To others it may have seemed that Dalton was heeding the novelist's parting advice to Hampden-Sydney's class of 1980. "I do urge you," Styron had said, "to think about the river James, which once flowed alive and beautiful through our state of Virginia."

For one week in May the state of Virginia, narcissistic about its past and its image, had to reconsider another of its treasured resources, its environment. Given Kepone's persistence, there is no doubt it will have to do the same many more times. Only next time it may not have Styron's prose to frame the debate.