“What, what is that…?” stammered Zach Moran, as he dug through a ziplock bag full of what appeared to be raw sewage. The stench was so oppressive it made our eyes water. In between dry heaves I handed him the forceps, and he delicately reached into the bag.
After a few seconds of digging, Zach locked onto a foreign object. He slowly began to lift the unknown object out of the bag and, as it emerged from the slop, we both let out an audible gasp.
“No, it can’t be…can it?” Zach asked in disbelief. I was still fighting back my gag reflex. As soon as I regained control, I said, “Yes, brother, that’s a maxi pad”. Zach just murmured “No, no, no…” repeatedly under his breath.
We were analyzing blue catfish stomach contents from the James River in Richmond as part of my doctoral research. We had already seen many unusual things in catfish stomachs, including peanuts, candy, cigars, hot dogs, chicken wings, muskrats, turtles, birds, and snakes. But we had never seen anything quite so disgusting. A few weeks later a condom emerged out of a similar bag, which also contained raw sewage, another sample from downtown Richmond.
So why are catfish eating feces, condoms, and maxi pads? Clearly their gastrointestinal fortitude rivals that of Andrew Zimmern, but why are these “food items” so readily available in the River City?
I began to ask this question in spring of 2013, when hundreds of trees along the north bank of the James River were adorned with condoms. Some trees had so many condoms it was like a sick mockery of Christmas. These condoms would occasionally stick to our nets and the side of the boat. “Another James River drift sock”, Jason Emmel joked in disbelief.
The answer is simple. During a heavy rainfall, the City of Richmond dumps raw sewage directly into the James River. This sewage is laced with feces, condoms, tampons, maxi pads, and other things residents flush down their toilets. Richmond has a combined sewer system where surface runoff and sewage all run through the same ducts. During a heavy rainfall, the flow exceeds what can be processed by the waste water treatment plant, and raw sewage diverts directly into the river.
I know, it’s the 21st century right? Why are dumping sewage into the James River? Before we grab our pitchforks we need to remember that Richmond is an old city, and that the sewage infrastructure was constructed a long time ago. Richmond actually has the largest combined sewage system in all of Virginia, and approximately 12,000 acres worth of sewage drain directly into the river during heavy rain.
These same blue catfish that eat feces, condoms, and tampons are being harvested by commercial fisherman, processed by Congressional Seafood, and sold in major grocery chains including Wegmans and Whole Foods. The irony of sewage fed catfish being sold in Whole Foods is amusing, but also alarming.
While several combined sewer outfalls (CSO) exist along the James, we noticed that a substantial amount of raw sewage was coming out of CSO 006, which is literally 50’ downriver of the 14th St. Canoe and Kayak Launch; a place I regularly see people swimming and fishing. While this is technically a “controlled outfall”, this simply means that it has a gate, and during significant rain events the gate is wide open. We’ve been there several times in the spring when condoms and sewage were pouring into the river.
I avoid swimming in the James River from below Pony Pasture all the way down to Hopewell. While this may be an overreaction, I have seen what dumps into the river around Richmond. I also know that fecal coliform counts are highest within the fall line stretch, and that 10% of the global cases of the fatal brain-eating Amoeba (Naegleria fowleri) are from the James River near Richmond (Ettinger et al. 2002).
I also don’t eat catfish from the James, as the thought of these fish slurping down feces, condoms, tampons, and maxi pads is disturbing, to say the least. Unfortunately, blue catfish sold in local grocery stores are not labeled by river. They could be from any tidal river in Virginia or Maryland. These water quality issues aren’t just isolated to the James, as both the Rappahannock and Potomac rivers pass through large urban areas. While blue catfish are excellent to eat, I will never buy them without knowing their river of origin.
I always find it remarkable that most of Richmond’s populous is completely unaware of the water quality issues within the James River. If people knew that raw sewage was being dumped in the river, I doubt they would eat fish, much less allow their children to swim in the water.
Ettinger, M. R., Webb, S. R., Harris, S. A., McIninch, S. P., Garman, G. C., and B. L. Brown. 2002. Distribution of free-living amoebae in James River, Virginia, USA. Parasitology Research, 89(1):6-15.