Column – Gi Stephens championed a cleaner Chesapeake Bay
Published 5:59 pm Tuesday, January 31, 2023
Pollution, in one form or another, was an ongoing source of news throughout my years with The Smithfield Times.
In late May 1973, less than a year after I came home to Smithfield to work at the paper, county farmer Wilson Turner called to tell me that huge numbers of dead fish, mostly croakers and trout, were washing up along the James River shoreline from Morgart’s Beach westward.
Our stories about that fish kill were published in June 1973. The kill lasted only a brief period, and the June 13 issue of the paper reported both the end of the fish kill and the discovery, by scientists at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, of its probable cause. They suspected — and the following year proved — that chlorine used to treat sewage in a waste treatment plant in Menchville was causing migrating fish to die as they entered the river.
Ironically — though I am only now coming to understand the irony — that same June 13 paper reported the death of Smithfield resident A.E.S. Stephens, former lieutenant governor of Virginia and for decades one of the region’s most influential politicians.
Here’s what makes the timing of the two stories ironic.
Back during the 1930s, The Smithfield Times published editorials sporadically. There was no “Editorial Page.” Opinion pieces, usually unsigned, might appear randomly on Page One or inside.
On Dec. 13, 1934, the paper published an editorial on Page One decrying the increasingly polluted water quality of the lower Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, including the James River. It was, as is often said in the industry, a real barn burner.
Sewage plants were, for the most part, a future innovation in 1934. Raw human waste from municipal sewage systems, industrial waste from all types of industrial operations, waste from farm animals running free in streambeds and marshes, and numerous other sources of pollution were fouling the rivers and bay.
The pollution issue hit home in Isle of Wight and other Chesapeake Bay communities when the Virginia Department of Health condemned thousands of acres of productive oyster grounds because of dangerous bacteria levels. At that time, oystering was a major industry throughout the lower Bay, including Isle of Wight County. With the oyster bed closures, public health concerns began to adversely affect the economy in a big way.
“Pollution has spread its tentacles over a vast area, increasing day by day, and almost each day witnessing the closing of additional oyster ground until today literally thousands of acres of our most productive oyster ground are condemned,” the editorialist wrote.
The editorial then turned to the public beaches, which had been surveyed and found to have “an appalling amount of pollution. Common decency teaches us that not for long are people going to continue to swim in waters seething with human excrement and other unsightly waste matters.”
Having gotten readers’ attention with that description, the editorial concluded by endorsing the work of the Hampton Roads Sewage Disposal Commission, created that year by the General Assembly.
A decade later, that commission would become the Hampton Roads Sanitation District, which eventually would be responsible for most of the waste treatment in the Hampton Roads region, including Smithfield.
Now, for the irony of those two Page One stories.
A.E.S. “Gi” Stephens was a transplant to Isle of Wight. Born in 1900 in Wicomico Church, Virginia, he moved to Isle of Wight in the mid-1920s after earning his law degree from the College of William and Mary.
He was immediately popular and successful, and always political. In 1929 — at the age of 29 — he was elected to the House of Delegates.
That same year, he and a handful of other Isle of Wight businessmen purchased The Smithfield Times. He became secretary of the corporation they formed. While Stephens’ name never appears in print as the author of stories or editorials, the causes he promoted in Richmond appear to have received benevolent treatment by the paper. That included the battle against pollution.
Stephens was a progressive legislator best known for his opposition to the state’s disastrous “Massive Resistance” to school integration. It is less well known that he was also an early champion of pollution control. He supported creation of the Sewage Disposal Commission, and that support, I am confident, led the paper to take a strong editorial position favoring cleaning up the waterways.
HRSD’s place in the region’s history is secure and its importance immeasurable, but its growth wasn’t without conflicts. Chemical treatment of sewage during the early years of waste treatment, particularly the use of chlorine to kill fecal coliform bacteria, at times led to harmful side effects, including fish kills. Treatment methods have since improved dramatically, but in the early 1970s, conflicts between public health and marinelife safety sometimes occurred, as the fish kills proved.
Gi Stephens had helped pave the way toward a cleaner Chesapeake Bay, and the glitch in the system he championed that was announced the week of his death would prove to be only a pothole that could be repaired. The battle to improve water quality continues today, and we owe a great deal to those visionaries, including Gi Stephens, who foresaw nearly a century ago what would have to be done.
John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.