Google “environmental justice in Appalachia” and nearly every returned link will exclusively describe the impact of coal extraction on the region. It’s no surprise, then, that here in Pulaski, VA, many of us only feel peripherally connected to that conversation. Although we have had a few coal mining operations in this County historically, most of what is mined here now is limestone and shale. And up until a couple years ago, iron oxide, lead, zinc, shale and clay were mined more extensively than coal ever was in Pulaski County.
Although the minerals under our feet and homes in Pulaski are different from some of our neighbors in deeper coal country, we are all faced with the legacy of mining and industrialization. For over a hundred years, men mostly from outside of our region came here, extracted and processed resources like coal, iron and timber, and got really, really rich doing so. Then, when those industries were no longer profitable, they took the vast majority of that material wealth with them to other places and other industries, leaving us with a multifaceted mess. First, we have a labor force that has for generations been focused on industries like coal, timber, furniture making and other manufacturing. And, second, we have a multitude of environmental problems including dilapidated buildings and land filled with toxic chemicals, polluted waterways and soil.
One of several large industries in Pulaski was originally called the Acid Plant and later renamed Allied Chemical. It was located across Peak Creek from Heritage Park (on Dora Highway) and behind the shopping center on East Main Street in Pulaski. The plant produced sulfuric acid, ferrous sulfide, and a vanadium catalyst through a process that involved roasting iron sulfide and pyrite. The solid byproduct – which is light brown, porous and smells of sulfur if broken – has been nicknamed “Doodle Dust” and the EPA estimates that the plant generated about 45,500 tons of it during the plant’s operation from 1904 – 1976. Some of the Doodle Dust was spread over approximately five acres along Peak Creek and the rest was sold to people and businesses around the county for fill dirt and to melt into concrete.
In the late 1980s, after reports that Peak Creek was running red, the EPA investigated and ultimately capped the area with concrete to prevent further erosion of the Doodle Dust and other metals into the waterways. But the capping was insufficient and, in 1999, the EPA declared the former Allied Chemical property to be a Superfund site. Currently abandoned and with no likely prospects for repurposing given the contamination levels, the site is a well-known, but little discussed homeless encampment.
In late 2019, amid impeachment hearings and 2nd amendment sanctuary debates, it’s difficult to find consensus on many issues. But one thing we can all agree on is that government agencies, alone, are not going to fix problems like our “Doodle Dust Dilemma” right here in our backyards. It’s only through committed local residents (often led by women) working with institutional partners that these sorts of problems get identified, understood and, hopefully, solved. And that’s exactly what the Friend of Peak Creek (FoPC), founded by Vickie Houk, Sybil Atkinson and Linda and Ron Hall and currently led by Cathy Hanks, is doing. Humbly but diligently, FoPC is working in partnership with the Friends of Claytor Lake, Virginia Tech and the New River Conservancy to understand and mitigate the erosion from the Allied Chemical site and the entry of contaminants into the waterways.
A local tourism slogan tells us “Pulaski County is…outdoor recreation” and encourages visitors to check out Claytor Lake. But the quality of the water in Claytor Lake is connected to all of the waterways that run into it. Claytor Lake isn’t going to be clean unless we monitor pollution levels in Peak Creek – including heavy metals, Doodle Dust and even animal waste running off into waterways. Though it’s not on a billboard, we often hear our neighbors and friends complain that Pulaski County is also a place where historic wrongs don’t get righted and nothing ever seems to change. But FoPC provides a counter narrative, demonstrating that, even in Pulaski County, when small groups come together humbly to address local problems, change does happen. Perhaps one day we’ll see a new county slogan – “Pulaski County is…neighbors working together for a clean, healthy, just community.”
To support Friends of Peak Creek with your time or money, click here.
For more information about Doodle Dust in Pulaski, see this excellent background report by Towson University geology student, Kathleen Hohweiler.