The unassuming gray building on Virginia State Route 151 in Nelson County doesn’t look like much at first glance.
Officially, it’s a simple groundwater collection and treatment system, built on what now is an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site in Piney River.
Locally, many still remember the former titanium mining and refining site fondly as one of the largest job providers for Nelson and Amherst counties for many decades in its “heyday,” according to Woody Greenberg, a resident of Arrington and former reporter and editor for the Nelson County Times.
But the structure also unofficially symbolizes a political and environmental nightmare — a sordid story that includes a stint as the centerpiece in the conviction of former Sen. Harrison “Pete” A. Willams, of New Jersey, as part of the FBI’s sting operation known as Abscam.
The controversial federal corruption investigation, which led to bribery and conspiracy convictions for Williams, six members of the U.S. House of Representatives and several lower-level politicians, has been given new life as the foundation for the plot of “American Hustle.” The movie, directed by David O. Russell and starring Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, opened nationwide Dec. 20.
With FBI agents posing as Arab sheiks with deep pockets, a New Jersey con man used as an FBI consultant and a fabricated company called Abdul Enterprises Ltd., the two-year sting operation in the late 1970s served as a fitting source of inspiration for an exaggerated Hollywood film.
There are no pretenses the movie is not an intense dramatization — it opens with on-screen words stating, “Some of this actually happened.”
However, the federal probe’s connection to Piney River was very real.
A conviction via Piney River
Melvin Weinberg, a self-described swindler from New Jersey, was the center man in the Abscam sting.
After years of scamming people, Weinberg was nabbed by the FBI in the 1970s and brokered a deal in return for not going to prison. Eventually, Weinberg helped the FBI create scenarios to induce government officials to become crooks by accepting tens of thousands of dollars in bribes while secretly being recorded on surveillance video.
For Harrison Williams, his involvement came by way of the defunct U.S. Titanium mining and refining plant in Piney River. Williams’ friend, Henry “Sandy” Williams, of no relation, was president of the New Jersey-based corporation at the time.
Henry Williams had bought the abandoned factory property for about half a million dollars in 1976 from S. Vance Wilkins Jr., a Virginia delegate from Amherst County at the time, with supposed plans to reopen it.
According to reports at the time, Harrison Williams promised FBI special agent Richard Farhart, posing as sheik Yassir Habib, that he would obtain defense contracts for the output of the operation if the latter would invest millions to help rebuild the plant and award him shares in the mining enterprise.
The Abscam operation, which former FBI supervisor John Good oversaw, was revealed in February 1980. Harrison Williams was indicted for political bribery and conspiracy by a Brooklyn, N.Y., grand jury in the fall of 1980.
According to a New York Times article about the trial of Harrison Williams, written in April 1981, the senator denied he ever agreed to use his position to get government contracts to buy the output of the mine or that he had a personal stake in the venture.
Nevertheless, Harrison Williams was convicted in May 1981 of accepting a free 18-percent share in the U.S. Titanium Corp’s mine and a $100 million loan to develop the defunct plant from the fictitious sheik.
Along with Williams, the investigation put congressmen Frank Thompson Jr., of New Jersey; John M. Murphy, of New York; John Jenrette, of South Carolina; Richard Kelly, of Florida; Raymond Lederer, of Pennsylvania; Michael “Ozzie” Myers, of Pennsylvania, behind bars, as well as other government officials.
The Hollywood version
According to a Dec. 26 article by the Washington Post about “American Hustle,” actor Bradley Cooper plays an undercover FBI agent who is a composite of Good (who consulted on the film) and other undercover agents. Christian Bale’s character is based on Weinberg, who sold his life-story rights to the producers for $250,000.
The film was well received, and on Sunday took Golden Globe awards for best comedy, best actress (Amy Adams) and best supporting actress (Jennifer Lawrence).
Although no references to Harrison Williams nor Piney River are made in the film, actor Jeremy Renner plays a character who has connections to both. Renner portrays Carmine Polito, based on then-Camden, N.J., mayor Angelo Errichetti, who in the real-life version of the operation helped arrange Harrison Williams’ initial meeting with undercover agents — for a share of the pie.
It is unclear what exactly happened to U.S. Titanium, or what was the nature of the corporation, except that it ended up insolvent. According to an Associated Press article from 1980, documents obtained by the FBI reportedly showed that Henry Williams and his partner, Ronald Penque, drained the company of its assets almost from its inception.
The documents also showed the company had no corporate headquarters and only three officers, including Henry Williams and Penque. When the corporation defaulted on a loan it had taken to purchase the plant, its stock became controlled by the Stone Foundation of Hartford, Conn.
However, the spotlight placed on the U.S. Titanium plant site was not turned off with the conclusion of Abscam.
From ‘the lifeblood’ of the community to an environmental stain
Serious environmental problems at the site, including contaminated groundwater and soil, were traced back to the site’s functions under its previous owner, American Cyanamid Company, which bought the plant in 1944.
From 1944 to 1971, the company was a big employer in Amherst and Nelson counties, as it used the site to mine ore and the factory to refine titanium dioxide, a key ingredient in paint.
“The plant was part of the lifeblood of the Piney River community and that surrounding area up until it hit hard times in the late ’60s and early ’70s,” Greenberg said.
Wilkins, who later went on to become the 53rd Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates, owned the property starting in 1973 but never used it for titanium-related operations. When he sold the property to U.S. Titanium, Wilkins signed an agreement protecting him from any damages caused by potential lawsuits related to untreated piles of waste at the abandoned factory. He also loaned the corporation $100,000 to clean up any waste and filed a lien on two accompanying tracts of mining land in Amherst County as collateral.
In 1982, the state sued U.S. Titanium, American Cyanamid, Wilkins and others to recover costs of a cleanup that began in the early 1980s.
Also in 1982, the approximately 50-acre site “was proposed to the National Priorities List of the most serious uncontrolled or abandoned hazardous waste sites requiring long-term remedial action,” according to information on the Environmental Protection Agency’s website. The location officially was added to the list in September 1983, which made it eligible for federal cleanup funds.
The State Water Control Board blamed pollution from a toxic residue left behind at the abandoned plant site for six fish kills in the Tye and Piney rivers that took place from 1977 to 1981 and resulted in the death of more than 200,000 fish. The residue came from copperas, a greenish substance that can become hazardous if it is mixed with water and air, as a chemical reaction producing sulfuric acid can occur.
Fading into history
A messy legal battle ensued. The defendants in the suit — U.S. Titanium Corp.; two of its subsidiaries, Penque-Williams Inc. and Piney River Mines Inc.; the Stone Foundation, which owned the company’s stock; and John E. Drew, a Connecticut lawyer for the foundation — agreed to pay for the cleanup. Wilkins denied responsibility and eventually was determined not liable.
The lawsuit dragged on until it was heard in phases from November 1984 to April 1985. The state successfully sued American Cyanamid and, at the time, estimates for the cleanup were about $5.5 million.
The company bought back the property in 1993 and then Cytec Industries, described as a spin-off of American Cyanamid, took over.
Cytec entered into a decree with the EPA and the state to perform cleanup of the site, which was initiated in the summer of 1994. Through the initiative of the community, the Blue Ridge Railway Trail was built along a former railroad right-of-way that crosses the site.
Cytec owns the private property on either side of the trail but has not used it for any business ventures.
Andy Palestini, the EPA’s remedial project manager for the site, said there are restrictions regarding how capped parcels of land can be used, in order to make sure “people aren’t being exposed to the low pH groundwater.” Several areas on the site are capped, which involves placing a cover over contaminated material, and have been purposely overgrown with grass.
A third five-year report from the EPA was issued in March 2010. The EPA continues to monitor the cleanup systems in place to ensure they are functioning adequately to protect human health and the environment, according to Bonnie Smith, a biologist with the EPA.
Activity at the site, both controversial and otherwise, has slowed considerably.
The actual mining and refining plant and most of the buildings associated with the operation were torn down years ago. All that still stands is an office building barely visible from Virginia 151 and the water treatment system, built as part of the ongoing cleanup, which now also serves as a rather understated tribute to the Nelson County site and its bizarre, flashy history, stained by toxic pollutants and tainted politicians.
Editor’s note about this story: Except where otherwise noted, the reporting for this story largely comes from archive news stories from The (Lynchburg) News & Advance, a sister publication to the Nelson County Times.