Sewage leak continues despite agencies’ efforts

Published 2:31 pm Wednesday, November 30, 2016

By Diana McFarland

Managing editor

For at least three years, what town officials say is raw sewage has been intermittently running across the sidewalk along North Church Street, into the street and draining into the Pagan River.

The alleged sewage is coming from a private residence, 406 N. Church Street, and so far, neither local nor state health officials have been able to force the property owner to stop the discharge.

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Smithfield Mayor Carter Williams noticed the discharge three years ago. When he smelled it, the odor was unmistakable.

“It’s sewage, raw pure sewage,” said Williams, who said he’s been trying to get it stopped for the past three years and is now simply frustrated by the lack of progress.

On Monday, drainage could be seen coming from the property and running down North Church Street toward the Pagan River.

The alleged sewage discharge goes into the storm drain right above Clontz Park where people routinely fish and crab.  {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

Efforts to reach the property owner, Natalie Roberts, were unsuccessful.

Unable to get the property owner to make repairs, and despite court appearances and violation notices, the Western Tidewater Health District has recently enlisted the help of the Isle of Wight County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office, said Jay Duell, senior environmental health manager with the Western Tidewater Health District.  

Appraised of the situation on Monday, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality will also get involved, according to Maria Nold, regional director of the Tidewater Regional Office.

“Although individual septic systems are addressed by the local health departments, this office will investigate and coordinate with the Town and Western Tidewater Health District to determine if we can be of assistance,” said Nold in an email.

The latest violation notice, sent Nov. 22, stated that the observations of discharge, if verified, “constitute real or potential threats to public health and to the ground and surface waters of the Commonwealth.”

When Williams initially noticed the discharge in 2013, he said he and former Smithfield Director of Planning, Engineering and Public Works Bill Hopkins began working with the Health Department.

The case was scheduled to go to court in June 2014, but the day before the Health Department was to appear before the judge, officials noted work seemed to have been done and there was no discharge, so the case was dropped, said Duell. 

There wasn’t another complaint until June 25, 2015, Duell said.

Based on that complaint, the Health Department sent a violation notice, but progress was held up at that point by insufficient postage and a rabies case that had to be attended to, according to emails from Duell to Smithfield Planning Technician Joseph Reish.  

After the owner received the notice, she responded by making an application to repair the system. The application means the Health Department would evaluate the situation in order to issue a repair permit, Duell said.

However, the property is not large enough for a conventional septic system and the Health Department suggested the owner get with a private consultant, Duell said.

The house was built in 1900, according to Isle of Wight County property assessment records, and it is unknown how old the septic system is, Duell said.

If it was installed prior to the 1950s there were no permits and that is believed to be the case, Duell said. 

The alleged health violation was supposed to go to court in September 2015, but the “paperwork was messed up” and the hearing was postponed, according to an email from Duell to Reish.

The case did not go to court for another five months, on Feb. 11, 2016.

At that time, the judge continued the case for six months in order to give the property owner time to make repairs, Duell said.

In an email to Reish, Duell said the property owner had a wastewater consulting firm representative come to court and provide some options, but the representative said those could take several months.

In an email sent to Reish in May, Duell told town officials that his office had contacted its legal representatives in Richmond about how to proceed.

Meanwhile, as emails went back and forth, Reish continued to report alleged sewage draining into the Pagan River.

The Health Department appeared in court on Sept. 15, but since there was no discharge on the day or two before the date, the judge dismissed the case, Duell said.

“We do not know why the discharge stopped for a period of time, but it does not surprise us that it has started again,” said Duell in an Oct. 28 email to Reish after continued complaints about the sewage discharge.

Duell said his office had decided to consult with the Isle of Wight County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office as well as issuing a new violation notice on Nov. 22.

In most cases, the Health Department is able to handle these issues on its own, but in this case it appears more professional help is needed, Duell said.

According to the Nov. 22 notice, the property owner has until Dec. 12 to submit a sewage disposal system design or sign a waiver allowing the Health Department to design a system.

If the property owner opts to sign the waiver, it must be recorded in Isle of Wight County Circuit Court by Dec. 16. Otherwise, the property owner has until Jan. 6 to install a system with a licensed installer, according to the notice.

Meanwhile, the property owner was advised to contract with a sewage hauler to perform emergency pump and haul services until the system is repaired. The property owner is also asked to treat the ground with lime to keep any harmful microorganisms and reduce odors.

So far, there is no new court date as the property owner is being afforded “due process,” Duell said, adding that with the court dismissal in September, the latest violation notice constitutes a new case. 

Williams said the town has looked into running a Hampton Roads Sanitation District line to the property — which along with another house next door, are the only two residences in the vicinity.

It’s too expensive for just two houses and Smithfield Packing paid to put the force main in years ago at its facility, Williams said.

The house next door has an operating septic system, Duell said, adding that joining onto that system is an option.

Isle of Wight County Department of Inspections cannot deem the house unsafe or unfit because the problem does not involve it being structurally unsound and it has basic utilities available inside, said Isle of Wight Assistant County Administrator Don Robertson.

The problem appears to be outside the house and that doesn’t fall within the parameters of declaring a house unfit or unsafe, Robertson said.    {/mprestriction}