Column – History of growth in IW? Just follow the sewer

Published 4:20 pm Tuesday, January 9, 2024

The late Elsey Harris, who was Smithfield’s town manager during the 1970s and ’80s, dreaded the kind of growth the town and county have recently embraced, and he had a rather colorful way of describing what would drive it. Developers, he said, are like rats. They both follow sewer lines.

Not terribly complimentary, but it graphically and accurately described what would drive Isle of Wight and Smithfield’s plunge into the abyss of what now looks to many to be uncontrolled housing development. 

A state regulatory philosophy that took shape a half-century ago set the stage for what’s happening here today. Put simply, it was an official stance that a regional sewage treatment network should replace any and all smaller waste treatment plants, no matter how that might impact a community’s growth. 

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Key to the state’s philosophy was and is the Hampton Roads Sanitation District (HRSD), which was created in the 1930s to clean up the grossly polluted waters of Hampton Roads, including the James River. It has since grown into a regional powerhouse with waste collection lines extending as far as Surry County. As it grew, and became the collector of all residential, commercial and industrial waste, it also became the unofficial but effective arbiter of regional growth.

The Pagan River entered the state’s web of influence gradually. A water quality study of the river in 1977 declared the river seriously polluted, with excessive levels of nitrogen and phosphorus, which were attributed to the treated wastewater coming from Smithfield’s two packing plants, Gwaltney and Smithfield Packing, as well as the municipal treatment plant the town owned.

That same study noted, ironically, that even if the town’s and packing plants’ treated wastewater were to be completely removed from the river, a key pollution indicator would likely only improve 20%, because a significant part of the pollution was coming from non-point sources, i.e., farming and residential sources, as well as wildlife and natural runoff in the floodplain.

The packing plants, under the regulatory gun of the state, began dramatically improving their treatment systems, as did the town of Smithfield, which built a new treatment facility to meet discharge standards.

By 1988, a new study of the river conducted by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science found that the Pagan had, in fact, improved dramatically. It also confirmed what the earlier study had found, that much of the Pagan’s problem was from non-point pollution.

That study didn’t faze state regulators. The Water Control Board’s regional director at the time, Larry McBride, was adamant that Smithfield, the packing plants and Isle of Wight should be connected to HRSD. The regional organization, he told The Smithfield Times, had permits to dump treated waste into Hampton Roads, the Chesapeake Bay and the James River. In the prevailing view of the state, that meant whatever pollution occurred would be diluted. 

There was even a parlance for it in those days. “Dilution is the solution to pollution.”

McBride basically shrugged at what impact a regional collection system would have on the town and county. A lack of sewage treatment, he said, shouldn’t be used as a “birth control pill” to regulate growth. Besides, he said, residential growth was a problem for localities, not the state.

In addition, McBride said, HRSD had a national reputation for doing quality work and was better equipped than any small operator to control pollution.

Meanwhile, the town of Smithfield, thanks to its new sewage treatment plant, was reaching its discharge limits. At the request of Isle of Wight officials, the town had extended sewage lines to the new Gatling Point development and was under pressure to accept more.

The state said no. It would not give the town a permit to discharge more treated waste, no matter what its quality. Town officials were led to believe that the state might be more considerate if Smithfield agreed to connect to a regional system.

Then, the State Health Department weighed in. If Smithfield received permission to expand its plant, the Health Department would close additional shellfish beds at the mouth of the Pagan, no matter whether water quality warranted it or not. The state would simply assume that a catastrophic failure of the town’s system as well as both packing plants might someday occur. Based on that possibility, the state would preemptively shut down additional oyster beds.

Water Control Board officials continued to pressure Smithfield Foods to accept HRSD treatment. Since the combined waste from the two packing plants far exceeded Smithfield’s municipal discharge, the company’s decision would dictate the future.

In May 1991, Smithfield Foods ran up the white flag and gave in to the pressure by agreeing to underwrite much of the construction cost of an HRSD line from North Suffolk to Smithfield.

Anybody with a brain knew where it would lead. Some landowners and developers salivated over the possibilities; other people, including Harris, dreaded those possibilities, but nobody was able to stop the juggernaut. The decision set the stage for everything to come.

In June of that year, we published an editorial that expressed the newspaper’s fear:

“We have not favored an HRSD line through Carrollton because we have never had confidence in the county’s willingness to control growth once the line is in place. We still don’t.”

That, unfortunately, has proven to be about as prescient as anything we published back then. We just didn’t realize then that the town would join the county in the stampede to come

Next week: The county and town had been sparring for years over development, and sewage treatment was a key to their positions.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is