For five years, Henry Broaddus has managed to stop millions of gallons of wastewater from flowing into the Pamunkey River. But his fight's not over.
A Break In The Line
Five years is a long time for a man to fight.
Neighbors grow bored by the blue-and-white signs and never-ending petitions. Savings dwindle and disappear. Newspaper reporters stop calling. Saving a farm, fighting a sewage plant, same old story. Where's the glamour?
And all the while, the future remains uncertain.
But Henry Ruffin Broaddus can't imagine giving up. His isn't a fight for money, he says if it were, he wouldn't have traded his job for a year in an Airstream trailer, or gone broke spending 20 years' worth of farm profits on lawyers and consultants. Nor is it just about keeping an iron pipeline out of his back yard. He has inherited a 150-year-old pact, he says, to guard Newcastle Farm and the green Pamunkey River.
Hanover County officials have a pact of their own, which to them is no less sacred the Comprehensive Plan to encourage economic growth. Clusters of houses, schools and retirement communities are sprouting throughout the predominantly rural county, just as administrators had hoped. But progress leads to sewage, and the county needs its own plant to treat it, officials say.
Where will the outflow from the burgeoning suburbs go? Not into the river, Broaddus insists. And certainly not across his land.
But the concrete towers and basins of the wastewater plant are already half-risen, and the pipeline nearly complete. County officials speak of the new sewage system in the future tense, not in the conditional.
Both Hanover and Broaddus think they already know the end of this story. But for the moment, they have to wait and see. The end of a five-year fight may be at hand.
On the project map spread out in a county boardroom, things are simple. Houses are black dots, wetlands are little fan-shaped plants and the river is a serpentine blue line. Newcastle Farm is 878 acres bordered by blue, with no dots and no plants the perfect spot to end the 8-mile pipeline, shown as a bold red stripe.
But to Henry Broaddus, 26, the place cannot be defined by flat lines on paper. No symbols on the county's map represent evening flights of Canada geese, or deer leaping into the margins of the woods, or midnight owl calls across the water. There's no X marking where Broaddus caught his first fish, a limp silver pumpkinseed he examines dubiously in a childhood photograph. And nowhere does it show the spot where his father, Meade, said his last goodbye to his mother, Frances. He was killed in a car accident in 1976, when Henry was 5 months old.
But can a battle against a sewage treatment plant be won with memories and photographs? "I don't think it will," says Broaddus. "And I don't particularly think it should. The public interest has to outweigh personal sentimentalities."
County administrators say the same thing as they dismiss Broaddus's concerns. So he's fighting back on their own terms. He never took a biology course, but "you can learn a lot in one year," he says, "when the stakes are this high." His iBook is his ally, its hard drive crammed with data on sludge percentages and dissolved oxygen levels, letters to supporters and cordial castigations of the county's views.
Did Hanover's offer of $12,000 for 1.1 acres of land ever tempt him? Never, he says. (All the other 50-some landowners whose properties lie in the path of the pipeline were "very cooperative," says County Supervisor J.T. "Jack" Ward, and they took the county's offers.) To Broaddus, the whole project is a betrayal, the end of a centuries-long covenant between the river and the land.
In Colonial days, the fields beside the Pamunkey sustained the town of Newcastle, which legend has it was the runner-up by two votes in the 1779 contest for state capital. Newcastle might have been what Richmond is now, had the river not swelled with silt. Today, its only souvenirs are rusting buttons and buckles. A white marble gravestone marked "Sybil" guards a colonial woman's skeleton Broaddus' father found in the riverbank decades ago.
Capital grandeur proved not to be the future of Newcastle Farm, but it nearly became a roaring railroad thoroughfare in the early 1900s, Broaddus says. The farm was saved when World War I began and the iron for the rails was needed elsewhere. Standing by the river in a worn leather jacket and wire-rim glasses, Broaddus points to the concrete supports for the rails that stand crumbling in the river, stained with age. Snapping turtles sun themselves in the deep cuts carved out to lay the tracks.
"It's had a lot of near misses," Broaddus observes, surveying his land. "It seems to be a place that wants to stay the way it is."
The site of Newcastle town was declared a Virginia Historic Landmark when he was still a baby. One family photograph shows an infant Henry sleeping in the shade as his parents search for pottery shards and pipe stems to send to archaeologists.
For all his ties to Newcastle Farm, Broaddus wasn't a farmer. "I'm really the first generation in seven that hasn't been literally pulling a living out of that dirt," he says. After his father's death, another family raised hay and soybeans there, while Broaddus was raised by his mother, a part-time stage actress and model. He went to Dartmouth, graduated with an English degree and was thinking about becoming a screenwriter in Los Angeles, he says.
But then, in April 1997, a terse letter from the county arrived at his mother's house. Newcastle Farm had been chosen as the best location for a pipeline that would discharge water from a planned sewage treatment plant into the Pamunkey River, it said. The county would be applying for a conditional-use permit to begin examining the site.
Broaddus and his mother, Frances Broaddus-Crutchfield, were incensed. There was no way the county would take even a small piece of Newcastle Farm for this pipeline, they said, and no way any effluent would go into the river. They maintained and still do that an inflow of 5 million gallons per day of treated wastewater would ruin the Pamunkey River, which is already designated "impaired" by the Environmental Protection Agency. The county's plans include possibly increasing flow to 30 million gallons per day by 2017.
Project engineers say the Pamunkey is in good health overall despite the effects of centuries of farm runoff, with the exception of a swampy spot near the discharge site. They point out it's not sludge that's going in, but clear water. Advanced secondary treatment at the plant would remove almost all of the organic matter and disinfect the water with UV radiation. Still, Broaddus points out, "even 30 million gallons of Evian" would disrupt the complex tidal river system.
When Broaddus' mother received the letter, he was working in the admissions office of Dartmouth College, but he joined his mother in battle, waged first with letters and phone calls, then with protests and lawsuits. They created a comprehensive Web site, www.saveourriver.org. In June 2000, Broaddus came home to devote a full year to the fight.
"I would never have asked him to do it," says Broaddus-Crutchfield. "I think he felt like this was his birthright and it was his job to fight for it."
And despite defeats, he did. The lowest point in five years, she says, was the board's decision in June 2000 to finally condemn a 1.1-acre strip of Newcastle Farm after its plans were approved by the necessary state boards and commissions.
"That was grief in the raw," she says of her son's reaction. "I think at that point he felt the grief of losing his father."
The family's fight did not end there, however. On March 7, 2001, the day pipeline construction was to begin, a crowd of people (70 to 80, says Broaddus, as the local newspaper reported; 30 or 40, says Ward) gathered to block trucks from entering the farm. The next day, a judge declared protesters could not legally impede construction, and work on the pipeline and plant continued.
Everything lurched to a halt in November, when U.S. District Judge Robert E. Payne ruled that the permits that had been granted by the Army Corps of Engineers were invalid. The county's proposal didn't include a sewer-line interceptor that was essential to its plans, Payne said, and the permit process would have to be redone.
Letters from both sides flooded into the Army Corps of Engineers office in Norfolk until Jan. 25, the last date for public comments. Broaddus-Crutchfield says she and her supporters collected at least 700. "We are actually cautiously optimistic," Broaddus says.
County officials, on the other hand, are fully confident they will prevail.
"This is not a good-guy, bad-guy scenario," says Jack Ward, who has served as chairman of the Hanover Board of Supervisors for the last four years. "This is something the county has to do for its citizens."
For years, the county has paid to send its wastewater to Henrico County's facility for treatment. But by 2003, county officials predict, Henrico's capacity will be exceeded, and Hanover will need its own plant to treat the inevitable flood of sewage that comes with development.
An affable man whose necktie patterns include Teddy bears and tomatoes, Ward expresses utter faith in the county's plans. "As far as I'm concerned, there's no more contaminants than if you went there and poured a cup of coffee in the river," he says, gesturing over the soda fountain counter at the Colonial Pharmacy in Mechanicsville.
Ward admits he's no engineer, but says years of studies commissioned by the county have shown him that this plant is the county's best option. "If I really, really thought I'd be damaging anybody's property or hurting the river, I wouldn't be doing it," he repeats over and over.
Broaddus and his supporters believe it's not too late to consider alternatives the county last examined in 1995. William Ellis, one of the family's lawyers, says the $39 million the county originally allocated for the plant could greatly improve the water system Hanover currently shares with Henrico, or even Richmond's plant.
After all, the counties and the city get their water from the same place the James. Why can't they also cooperate with wastewater treatment? Ellis asks. "The county seems to want to go it alone," he says.
Ward won't argue with that one. He's all for regional cooperation, he says, but you can't always count on your neighbor. "You got to look out for yourself."
Frank W. Harksen Jr., director of the county's department of public utilities, says the county did consider collaborating on wastewater treatment with Henrico. But even when Henrico added improvements to its plant in 1997, he says, administrators told Hanover: "We want this capacity. Go look elsewhere for your long-term needs."
Richmond couldn't offer any help either, Harksen says. He used to work for the public utilities department there and remembers when Hanover officials broached the idea of cooperating with wastewater treatment, he says. It was out of the question, Harksen says, and still is. Richmond's plant is already overloaded, dumping raw sewage into the James when it floods, and it needs several hundred million dollars' worth of improvements. Not only that, Harksen says, but a pipeline to carry sewage there would never be allowed to cross the unsullied, wetland-bordered Chickahominy River.
"People say, have we looked at all the opportunities? And yes, we have," Ward says with authority.
Nothing irritates Broaddus more than the county's refusal to consider anything but what development dictates. "They seem just not able to comprehend that clean water and open space have a value over and beyond whatever development might bring." Whatever happens, he says, as soon as this fight is over, he'll do everything in his power to ensure his land will never be torn up again.
The farm, though quiet except for scattered bird chirps, has an air of being under siege. A series of posted signs along Route 360, a la Burma Shave, silently announces the war being fought over this placid land: "In 1.5 miles / You will cross / the Pamunkey River / Save it!"
Has the county objected to the roadside protest? Not yet. "After the toilets, they're really gun-shy about giving us free publicity anymore," Broaddus says.
Ah yes, the toilets. In October 1999, his mother and friends lined a stretch of the highway with porcelain commodes in silent protest. No one noticed, Broaddus says, until three months later the county fined them $1,000 for a zoning violation. They haven't paid it, he says, and no one's tried to collect the money. Ten toilets stand guard on the highway today some toppled, some listing, some upright.
Broaddus turns his red Jeep Cherokee right past the toilets and rumbles down the gravel farm road. More than a dozen fat, black iron segments of pipe lie nearby part of the pipeline was already laid before protests and the court order stopped work, Broaddus explains.
Opposite the pipes are the ruins of a brick house and chimney, its foundations filled with pooled water and debris. That's the old farmhouse Broaddus's father had intended to restore before his death. "In an alternate reality if things had gone a little differently that's where I would live," Broaddus says. Instead, his homestead is a 1961 Airstream trailer, a sleek aluminum pod parked on the field's edge about 50 yards from the river.
"This was home. Is home," he says as he walks up and unlocks the door.
Broaddus lived here for six months, beginning in the fall of 2000. For a year he worked on nothing but the fight against the pipeline and sewage plant after leaving his job as assistant director of admissions at Dartmouth College. Artifacts from his stay are scattered inside the sparsely furnished trailer. A fishing rod. "Skinny Legs and All," a paperback by Tom Robbins. A 2001 calendar of Far Side cartoons.
It was a meditative existence, he says, except for waking up to the noise of the bulldozers. Every day brought sightings of blue herons, bald eagles and beavers the size of beagles. At night, his neighbors would sometimes boat over, bearing pitchers of Bloody Marys. But one day he came home and found the Airstream ransacked, his things destroyed and a pistol stolen. He decided then that his efforts were "best made from afar."
Broaddus now lives and works in Williamsburg, in the admissions office at William and Mary. His attorneys, William B. Ellis and Benjamin A. Thorp IV, have taken over the day-to-day details of defending the farm. But the cause still consumes Broaddus's life. He estimates he spends four to five hours a day on Newcastle-related activities.
Most recently, Broaddus and his mother have been working to convince supporters to send letters of protest to the Army Corps. They've called upon everyone they can think of the Sierra Club, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the Mattaponi Indians. Duck hunters, neighbors and activists. Broaddus believes "people do trump money, but it takes a helluva lot more people."
On a cooling Sunday afternoon, relic hunters with metal detectors move through the stubbled fields with slow, intent strides, like herons hunting in the river. They carry pocketfuls of lead Civil War bullets, Union and Confederate alike now oxidized to the color of clay.
One of the hunters is John Pettus, whose 16-acre property abuts Newcastle Farm. He didn't become involved in the fight until two or three years ago, he says, when he went to go see what the hell his neighbors were doing with the toilets and the signs. "My first inclination was, here are some rich people who are going to put up a front and then take the money from the county," Pettus recalls. "They didn't. They said, 'screw you.'"
Since then, he's been part of his neighbors' cause. Standing in the field in faded gray overalls and a baseball cap, Pettus dials Broaddus on his cell and the two briefly discuss the campaign. "Clean water, bubba," he finally says, and a faint voice replies "That's right. That's right."
He and Broaddus have become friends, despite the 30-year age difference between them. "Henry shows exceptional maturity for his age," Pettus says, and pauses. "He's impressed me and I don't impress easily." Broaddus, in turn, calls Pettus and supporters like him his "champions."
Pettus says he just wants to see the project done right, if it must be done, because the Pamunkey's health is paramount. He knows the river intimately the striper hideouts, the beaver dams, and the steep banks that hide fossilized sharks' teeth, still sharp after 8 million years. If treated wastewater started gurgling up through the silt, would he still swim in the river? Pettus pauses, silent. It's not an easy question. "I'd boat, I'm sure. I probably would still boat, because the river's there. But I'd be disgusted every time."
The river and the land are too beautiful to forsake, no matter what happens, Pettus says. He gestures toward the cirrus clouds streaking the sky, the geese honking overhead, the constellation of deer tracks in the mud. "One of the nice things out here you can just let time slip away and enjoy it," he says.
The county is tired of letting time slip away. Time is money and the clock is running, Ward says remember, the original study commissioned by the county found that wastewater outflow would exceed Henrico's capacity by 2003.
That estimate was made a few years ago, when Hanover County administrators predicted booming development would soon create a wastewater crisis. Now, the county has stopped expecting massive expansion. Its growth rate has slowed to 2.5 percent, from a mid-1990s high of 3.7 percent, and about 24 percent of the capacity it purchased from Henrico is unused, officials say.
But Hanover still plans on more residents and businesses moving in, Ward says, and a centralized sewer system will enable the government to control the direction of growth. ("Yeah right," Broaddus says. "Engine for sprawl.") Plus, the underground septic tanks that handle much of the population's waste won't last forever, Ward points out. "We're floating on a sea of sewage."
Ward acknowledges that none of the businesses he's talked to about moving in have expressed concern for future wastewater needs. "I could see it happening, though," he adds. Developers are impatient, he says. They won't wait for the county to figure out some solution, but take their business elsewhere.
The county has already poured $14 million into the plant, which stands half-finished on a site near Pole Green Park. Since Judge Payne's order, everything has been quiet there. Instead of 75 construction workers, there are a handful doing erosion control work. Abandoned wooden forms cling to the sides of tall concrete tanks. A flag flutters in the breeze atop a motionless crane. The chief project inspector is bored "just a little bit," he says.
Ward and the other supervisors are confident construction will resume soon. They're just waiting for the Army Corps of Engineers to once again give the go-ahead. "I don't see any reason for them not to," he says.
Would county administrators swim in the river after the discharge begins flowing? "Oh yeah," says Harksen, and the others agree.
On Route 360, just you before reach Newcastle Farm, the highway climbs over a hill. At the top of the rise, a wide sweep of winter-brown fields comes into view below and the historical marker on the side of the road reflects a blinding flash of late-afternoon sunlight. If you look over, squinting, black letters emerge from the glare: "Edmund Ruffin's Grave."
There he lies, the famed agricultural scientist who bought land on the banks of the Pamunkey in 1843, where he studied the effects of adding rich river silt to soil. And there he lies, the man who fired the first shot on Fort Sumter. Some say Ruffin also fired the last bullet of the war, when he committed suicide on June 18, 1865, rather than submit to Union rule. Confederate-history buffs enthusiastically quote his final scribbled words, urging "deliverance and vengeance for the now ruined, subjugated and enslaved Southern States!"
Ruffin's great-great-great-grandson prefers to remember him as a scientist, not a soldier. Yet, like his ancestor, for Henry Ruffin Broaddus surrender is not a viable option. The pact between the family, the land and the river is one he has no intention of abandoning.
Grinning, Broaddus points to the piles of earth left from when construction workers installed the pipes on his farm. They were going to sell it as fill dirt, he explains, but he and his mother told them to leave it. "We said, they're gonna need that when they pull the pipes out."
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