Toxic waste pond fuels debate in rural Va. town 'Salt Capital of Confederacy' hopes to attract tourism


SALTVILLE, Va. - It seems a natural green valley, except for how the grass grows brown in some places and not at all in others, and the 6-foot chain-link fence that stretches endlessly around the property.

The barrier keeps people out of what locals call the muck pond, a 76-acre cauldron of chemical waste near Perryville Road - the festering legacy of the company that dominated this speck of a town in far southwestern Virginia.

For decades, Olin Chemical Corp. nurtured Saltville, named for its vast salt reserves. Olin, which focused its labor on processing chemicals, provided workers not just with jobs but houses. It built schools, roads and waterworks, paid the salaries of the local police, built the hospital and even bought uniforms for the high school football team, the Shakers.

A Superfund site

But when Olin, besieged by labor strife and tightening environmental laws, closed its doors here in the 1970s, it left Saltville with more than a hole in its budget: a federal Superfund site, the label reserved for the nation's worst toxic dumps.

For years the firm had poured tons of waste into waterways and holding areas, and it seeped into the ground. Some of that waste was mercury. The North Fork of the Holston River, which flows through Saltville to Tennessee, is so spiked with quicksilver that people can't eat the fish.

These days, that heritage has provoked sharp debate in "The Salt Capital of the Confederacy."

Some want people to stop carping about industrial waste, BTC because it can only hurt the town's plans for a major tourist attraction: a museum of the ice age that they expect to lure thousands of tourists off nearby Interstate 81.

But others say little progress is possible until the town comes to grips with poison left from a quarter-century ago.

"There are some people in town who would really like to play the ostrich," said Rusty Cahill, a local environmental activist who has ruffled feathers. "Our main concern - the thing about all of it - is the health of the people."

Some in this community of 2,300 say that as the years go by, more and more people have cancer. They're fighting for government health studies and more cleanup money from Olin. "They packed up and left, and left us sitting on this mess," said Charles "Sonny" Neal, whose arms are covered with blisters he thinks are caused by waste under his home.

Yet others remain resolutely loyal to the firm that employed 1,500 and gave the town a golf course, movie theaters and a swimming pool filled, of course, with salt water. They blame the controversy on a few agitators.

"People here don't feel threatened by health problems," said Mayor Frank Lewis. "It's blown out of proportion. Different people have done tests, and they've never found anything. They've told us there are no health problems."

Ice age fossils

Saltville is also known for its lodes of ice-age bones and fossils, and the vital role it played in the Civil War. During that conflict, Saltville was lighted by furnaces that heated 2,600 iron kettles, .. supplying the South's soldiers and civilians with food preservative. Brine was drawn from the ground, then boiled to collect the salt.

Ancient animal skeletons sealed in the blue clay have drawn researchers from the Smithsonian Institution and other academies. Centuries ago, woolly mammoths, sloths and mastodons came here for the salt. Scientists are still collecting .. their bones.

Boosters pin their hopes on those remains. In April, the town made national news when researchers reported evidence that humans lived here nearly 14,000 years ago - 2,500 years earlier than humans were thought to have existed in North America.

Jerry McDonald, a research associate in paleobiology at the Smithsonian, said: "It is one of several sites - one of the strongest - in suggesting earlier presence of man."

People here plan to capitalize on that through the Museum of the Middle Appalachians, a center where visitors could learn history through interactive displays, holograms and walking tours.

Steven Thompson, the museum's interim director, and others see Saltville's small downtown - which includes a Chevrolet dealership, a Piggly Wiggly grocery, a couple of auto parts stores and the Saltbox Cafe - being transformed by the museum. They figure new hotels, restaurants and stores are sure to come.

Backers, who say they're halfway toward collecting the $2 million to get the museum operating, wish people would stop tarring Saltville with talk of chemical waste.

"The mercury boogeyman is just that," said Charlie Bill Totten, the town's tourism director. "I played with mercury as a kid, and I don't feel any bad effects."

Others are not so sanguine. They're more interested in pursuing data about the contamination left behind.

The old Mathieson Alkali Works manufactured salt here until 1906, then expanded into a wide variety of byproducts. By 1960, after a merger with Olin, 1,500 Saltvillians depended on the chemical company for work.

'Took care of everybody'

Olin treated them well.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.