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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License.

Date of Award

Summer 2010

Document Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)

Department

Department of History

Advisor(s)

Kevin Borg

Abstract

From 1940-1989, a huge rayon factory—at one time the largest in the world—operated on the banks of the South Fork of the Shenandoah River in the Town of Front Royal, Virginia. Three different companies owned the facility: American Viscose Corporation (AVC) built it in 1939 and ran it until 1963 when the Food Machinery Corporation (FMC Corp.) conglomerate purchased AVC. In 1976, an FMC executive bought the rayon plant in Front Royal in a leveraged buyout, renaming the facility Avtex Fibers, Inc. From early on, the plant had serious problems with waste materials—including many toxic substances—produced when manufacturing rayon. During nearly 50 years of operation, the plant’s approach to toxic waste was to rely on insufficient and frequently outdated procedures and technologies, keeping a significant portion of the waste on-site. The South Fork of the Shenandoah, a crucial resource for the rayon plant and important ecological entity in its own right, suffered the consequences. Although the plant’s engineers were never able to protect the river, many outside people—from sport fishermen to state officials—attempted to do so. Over the plant’s operating life, changes in environmental awareness led to changes in law that ultimately caught up with the plant. In 1989, after years of controversy, Avtex Fibers closed its doors. The operations might have ceased sooner were it not for close connections between the rayon plant and the military, which granted it a strong degree of protection from environmental regulation for most of its operating life. This paper examines the entwined histories of the Shenandoah River and the rayon factory at Front Royal, especially the origins of its problematic waste disposal practices, and focuses on the changing dynamics that ultimately gave the health of the river—treated for so many years as a raw material and waste receptacle—priority over the factory. This history provides a microcosm to examine human interaction with the encompassing natural world, highlighting the limits of human knowledge with regard to predicting environmental consequences, the agency of environmental systems, and the possibilities for checking the momentum of technological systems that harm the environment.

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