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Oystermen sue city, HRSD over pollution

Three local oystermen and their companies have sued the city of Suffolk and the Hampton Roads Sanitation District because they say pollution caused by the defendants has caused them to lose the use of the oyster grounds they lease.

The two defendants say they have not caused the pollution and have filed a number of motions challenging the legalities of the oystermen’s claims.

An attorney for the plaintiffs says the oystermen know they’re taking on a big fight, but they know it’s worth it.

“They’re three watermen against the city of Suffolk, which is huge, and HRSD, which is huge,” said Joseph T. Waldo of Waldo and Lyle PC, a Norfolk law firm that specializes in property rights and eminent domain. “They’re not only watermen, but they’re stewards of that river. They have a vested interest, obviously.”

The plaintiffs are C. Robert Johnson III, Lisa Lawson Johnson and Thomas A. Hazelwood, who is a former commissioner of the revenue in Suffolk, as well as their companies, Johnson and Sons Seafood LLC and Hazelwood Oyster Farms Inc.

They say pollution caused by the city and HRSD has resulted in the closure of parts of the Nansemond River for shellfish harvesting, and that has harmed them, because they lease oyster grounds in those areas.

The defendants are intermittently dumping untreated stormwater and sewage into the Nansemond River, the lawsuit charges.

“Whenever you have a lot of rain, you’ll have overflow of the sewage or you’ll have stormwater runoff,” Waldo said. “It’s been documented by HRSD as well as the state of Virginia.”

Several actions by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality since 2010 have ordered the defendants to eliminate overflows and unauthorized discharges. In its own reports on the subject, the city of Suffolk has acknowledged that sanitary sewer overflows are one source of the Nansemond’s pollution.

“They actually admitted that they were discharging effluence into the Nansemond River and agreed to clean it up, which they have not done,” Waldo said. “They’ve made improvements, but making it better doesn’t get rid of the problem that’s still there.”

The defendants dispute that they caused the pollution, according to statements from their attorneys.

“The city of Suffolk has filed a motion asking the court to dismiss the case against it for failure to state a valid claim,” David Arnold with Pender & Coward, an attorney for the city, wrote in an email. “We staunchly dispute that the city is in violation of a consent order or that it has committed any wrongdoing in this matter.”

An attorney for HRSD, Chris Pomeroy of AquaLaw PLC, said there are many sources of bacteria in the Nansemond River, including septic tanks and runoff from private residence’s yards and farm fields.

“HRSD’s position is that it is not the cause of any chronic bacteria issue in the Nansemond River or the precautions the state imposes on state-owned oyster grounds,” Pomeroy wrote in an email.

The lawsuit lists Elizabeth Taraski, a commissioner with HRSD, as the person to serve for the organization. Taraski is also the president and chief executive officer of the Nansemond River Preservation Alliance, which among other things tracks and fights against pollution of the river.

Taraski was appointed to the commissioner position by Gov. Terry McAuliffe about a year and a half ago. She said by phone on Friday that she has filed conflict of interest paperwork with HRSD, as Hazelwood is on the board of NRPA. She declined further comment.

Reached by phone Friday, Hazelwood also declined comment. Robert Johnson did not return a message Friday afternoon.

A court hearing is set in April.