By Stefanie Jackson – Judge Revell Lewis III granted two petitions of the Hampton Roads Sanitation District Oct. 2, adding both Accomack and Northampton County to the district’s boundaries and allowing the counties to negotiate contracts with HRSD for the operation, maintenance, and upgrading of their sewer systems.
Neither the counties nor their incorporated towns are obligated to enter agreements with HRSD.
Lewis presided over a hearing on the matter in each county last Friday, one in the Accomack County Circuit Court at 9:30 a.m. and one in the Northampton Circuit Court at 2 p.m., giving his decision immediately at the conclusion of the second hearing.
He explained that his task was to determine if adding Accomack and Northampton to the Hampton Roads Sanitation District would be beneficial to the counties.
Lewis noted the benefits of sewer systems in general. “All septic systems will eventually fail,” he said.
He pointed out that different parts of the Eastern Shore have different types of soil, and not all are compatible with septic systems – some do not percolate well.
Lewis said the replacement cost of a septic system also should be considered. A new septic system that once cost $2,000 or $3,000 can cost up to $10,000 or $20,000 now, he said.
HRSD is willing to invest nearly $25 million in sewer system infrastructure on the Eastern Shore, starting with a force main from Nassawadox to Onancock. The Onancock wastewater treatment plant would process sewage collected by the main pipeline, and the cleaned wastewater would flow into Onancock Creek.
In return, customers would pay monthly rates set by HRSD.
Those rates are increasing approximately 9% every year, said Northampton supervisor John Coker.
He supported HRSD and said its “price escalation” is its only drawback.
Former supervisor Spencer Murray supported HRSD for economic development purposes. “Infrastructure such as broadband, safe highways, and efficient and safe treatment of wastewater have proven critical to economic growth for housing and new businesses,” he said.
Lewis used an analogy to explain why it would be beneficial to Accomack and Northampton to accept HRSD’s offer.
He recalled living in Parksley in his youth, when every town on the Shore had a dump where trash was left.
But in 1976 Congress banned open dumping, and the new normal became sanitary landfills, which use modern technology to bury and compact trash while protecting groundwater from contamination.
Lewis pointed out that each town is not expected to have its own landfill; Accomack and Northampton each have a landfill that serves the entire county.
He also noted that each town is not left on its own to make high-speed internet available to its citizens; instead, Accomack and Northampton officials cooperated to create the regional Eastern Shore of Virginia Broadband Authority in 2008.
A regional approach also should be taken on infrastructure for wastewater collection and treatment, Lewis indicated.
HRSD doesn’t just serve big cities, he added. HRSD service areas include Virginia counties with fewer people than Accomack and Northampton, which have populations of about 32,000 and 12,000, respectively. For example, the population of Mathews County is less than 9,000 and King and Queen County has about 7,000 people.
Northampton citizen Granville Hogg was concerned less about the current population and more about its continual decline. Major sewer pipelines are for growing communities, he said.
The majority of people who move to Northampton settle near the water, out of HRSD’s potential service area, he said.
David Boyd agreed and said sewer systems are for areas with population or pollution that’s increasing, and Northampton has neither.
The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality conducted a TMDL (total maximum daily load) study of Kings Creek and Cherrystone Inlet in 2010, which determined that only 24% of pollution in those waters was caused by people, he said.
Boyd was against HRSD’s proposed pipeline, because it would disrupt the natural water flow and add more fresh water to Onancock Creek.
He asserted that the HRSD project was conceived to fix “a couple bad business decisions” made by towns like Onancock and Cape Charles, which built sewer systems bigger than they needed.
These bad decisions will be fixed “at the cost of the environment,” and the HRSD proposal is “a bad deal all the way around,” Boyd said.
Ken Dufty agreed that pumping more water into Onancock Creek instead of returning it to the ground is a bad idea that will cause environmental problems like saltwater intrusion and subsidence (land sinking).
He believed an environmental study should be done and the citizens of Accomack and Northampton should on vote whether or not they want their counties included in HRSD.
Lewis noted that environmental studies and permits would be required before HRSD could begin any construction.
He added that none of Accomack’s 14 incorporated towns objected to HRSD’s petition.
Lewis said HRSD’s offer might not be a “once in a lifetime” opportunity, but it’s “close to it.”