Polluted waters killing an industry

Published 10:15 pm Friday, September 12, 2014

To the editor:

Your Sept. 10 story, “More Suffolk waters polluted” — about the order issued by the Shellfish Sanitation Division of the Virginia Department of Health in August closing additional oyster lands in the Nansemond River — was important and contained several significant facts.

As you noted, this closure was not due to the recent heavy rainfall. It was based on 30 monthly samples, which means the polluted flow into the river has been going on over a period of months.

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The pollution has closed an additional 700 to 1,000 acres in the Nansemond River and additional oyster land in Bennett’s Creek. The economic impact is real for watermen. Oystering is an industry that has existed in Suffolk for more than 100 years and produces a product enjoyed by many. The very area the order was issued for is the same one the Suffolk News-Herald recently reported that Gov. Terry McAuliffe recently touted as the source of tasty oysters featured at an event on the grounds of the Capitol.

The state director of shellfish sanitation was reported as saying there are no permitted sewage outflows, so the measurements seem to indicate non-point source pollution, though, he added, “I’m not in a position to say that with any kind of confidence.”

If it is from a point source, it can be identified and stopped, but it has not been. If it is non-point source pollution, it is the result of polluted water flowing across impervious surfaces and land without a 100-foot buffer of effective vegetation as required by the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act.

The jurisdiction over that buffer is currently split in Suffolk between the Suffolk Planning Commission, which makes exceptions to allow development and paving in the buffer, as it recently did for a Walgreens drive-through pharmacy in downtown Suffolk; and the Wetlands Board which does its best to work at the waterline to get filtering plants at the foot of the buffer. The city planning department advises both.

This condemnation emphasizes the importance of both clean water and stewardship of the land and creeks surrounding the Nansemond. The City Council, its boards and commissions and city staff should be vigilant about the river and development of the land that surrounds it. Each needs to make protecting the river a priority, as James City County, Norfolk, Virginia Beach and Chesapeake now do in their developments.

An interesting case study regarding Suffolk can be found by searching online for “The Virginia Coastal Policy Clinic,” which has published a study titled “When the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act Fails: A Suffolk Case Study.”

John Newhard