By: Russ Rice, SERCAP Director of Planning & Development
In his 1963 book Strength to Love, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously stated, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige and even his life for the welfare of others.” John Thrower may not have realized it at the time, but well over a decade ago when he started advocating for clean water for his neighbors in the tiny village of Hobson, Virginia, he had embarked on a journey of living out Dr. King’s credo on the measure of a man.
The Hobson Community is located in the City of Suffolk in Virginia’s Tidewater Region near the Chesapeake Bay. The City of Suffolk is geographically the largest city in Virginia having annexed the former Nansemond County in 1974, however, the city is not at all completely a metro area. The Hobson Community is actually a rural collection of two villages and surrounding homes with about 200 residents living far from the major urban centers. Founded in the 1700s, Hobson grew first in the tidal marshlands as a haven for escaped slaves and later Freedmen, as well as descendants of the Nansemond Tribe, its original inhabitants. By the last quarter of the 19th century, Hobson had developed into an African American oystering village unique to the confluences of the James River and its tributaries with the Chesapeake Bay.
Hobson’s current residents cherish their heritage as Chesapeake Bay oystermen and watermen as well as their history of overcoming multiple past injustices. The community is a mix of very-low, low-, and moderate income households. Some of the housing stock is aging and the tearing down of dilapidated and uninhabitable homes has caused some controversy. John and his wife Nancy’s home had broken plumbing as did several others in the village. This mix of problems of housing, poverty, water, and conflicts between residents and with government was growing. As a member of the Hobson Civic League, John found himself right in the middle.
In 2007, SERCAP was asked by the community and the EPA to guide the community in resolving disputes between residents, the city and the state regarding noncompliance of Hobson’s two community water systems. Both waterworks were served by drilled wells having twice the permitted levels of naturally occurring fluoride along with bacterial contamination. The Hobson community operated the two waterworks as two separate private systems, however, they were regulated as public systems due to the number of customers. The Upper Village system had been cited over 100 times for noncompliance. Lacking the large amount of funds necessary to correct the fluoride issue with advanced technology such as reverse osmosis, the community was being pressured to connect to the city water system. A city trunk line passed right by the villages on the nearby highway, Crittenden Road. To government officials, the solution seemed straightforward. Hobson residents saw it otherwise. They fiercely resisted what they interpreted as an assault on the community’s self-reliance and what the water systems represented—the life blood of a community with 300 years of history. While they relied on the two modern drilled wells from the 1940s, one of the original hand dug wells nearly 300 years old is still intact but unused. Further, community residents viewed the potential surrender of their water systems to government as another link in a long chain of racial injustices that included loss of their livelihood on the Chesapeake Bay first to discrimination in the mid 20th century, then later to regulatory burdens, as well as redlining and land takings by government and developers. The residents were calling for Justice Department intervention.
In 2008, the EPA awarded SERCAP a two year $50,000 Environmental Justice grant to guide the community through to a successful resolution. Over the two year period, SERCAP came along side community members in a capacity development model and achieved a solution which satisfied Hobson residents, partially satisfied government officials, but wholly removed their need to levy consent orders, fines and other punitive action. In addition, the specter of a Justice Department investigation was eliminated. As a participant in the countless community meetings, John Thrower found himself emerging as a leader and speaking out for his neighbors’ interests.
The project resulted in drilling four new wells which split up the customers among four smaller private waterworks, taking them out of the regulatory environment. In addition to construction of the new wells and well houses, SERCAP built six houses for residents who previously lacked complete indoor plumbing. John and Nancy were overjoyed. Over $600,000 was leveraged in funding, donated materials and volunteer labor. Out of a deep sense of gratitude, John volunteered for opportunities to tell his community’s story. He was interviewed by media, worked with city and state agency officials, and maintained regular contact with his state representative Delegate Chris Jones. John gave moving testimony before the House of Delegates’ Health, Welfare and Institutions Committee in support of SERCAP and the need for more funding to help communities like Hobson.
Not every success story has a perfect outcome. In summer 2017 John contacted SERCAP again on behalf of some Hobson residents who had serious complaints regarding the control and operation of the water system serving the Upper Village. While SERCAP had assisted the community in dividing up the two original waterworks so that they fell below the regulatory reach of the state and city, SERCAP did not intervene in the governance structure of the private waterworks. The two original waterworks remained a private corporation and an LLC respectively. While the Lower Village LLC system was completed and functioning well, the Upper Village construction stalled out and new pipes were not laid and even one of the new wells was not connected for service to the residents. In the intervening years, poor management of the Upper Village system resulted in more State citations, and more than a dozen households on that system were subject to arbitrary water cutoffs due to repairs, leaks, line breakages, unpaid power bills and the like. Sometimes they were going without water for days. John began meeting with his neighbors who did not want to experience lack of water again. These residents were desperately asking for SERCAP’s assistance. As a result, SERCAP staff began meeting with these residents to incorporate a new 501(C)3 nonprofit to address the water, wastewater, housing and poverty issues of residents not served by the existing Hobson waterworks. John bore the brunt of the heat from the existing water system’s management for challenging the status quo. After several monthly work sessions, John’s new group was prepared to file for incorporation and nonprofit status for a new water system. Although SERCAP’s position on creation of a new nonprofit water system was neutral, staff continued to present all options such as connecting to the Suffolk public water system as being viable, while honoring the group’s intent to remain on private water. Two final workshops on full cost budgeting, however, convinced the group that creating a private system would be cost prohibitive, along with not allowing for the safest, most reliable water supply. In February, the group voted to sign on to Suffolk public water and abandoned its plans for creating a private system. Already the City is laying water lines along John’s street and will cover the village by the end of May.
In his humility, John always points to his pastor, his church’s leadership, the civic league, and his many neighbors as all playing an equally important role in bringing about this success in finally getting clean water. He says whatever he did was out of submission to them in love. At the last budgeting workshop meeting, John expressed hope that resolution of the water issue would lead to healing among the neighbors who were divided over the issue, as well as lead to more community cooperation to help neighbors in need.
It seems this story of one man’s journey—the measure of a man as Dr. King puts it—is also their story too. Two centuries ago, another wise man, Benjamin Franklin, said something similar regarding the many institutions we moderns credit just to him in Philadelphia. Whether it was a school, hospital, library, fire brigade, or public works, Franklin had this credo installed over the doors, “The good we can do together exceeds what we can do individually.”