City of Martinsville opposing reopening of Henry County wastewater plant

City sues state over plant permit as tensions between two localities over reversion persist

By: - October 12, 2022 12:04 am

A look at E. Main Street in Martinsville. (Courtesy of Wikimedia).

The city of Martinsville is suing the state and the Henry County Public Service Authority over the issuance of a permit to reopen a wastewater treatment plant in Henry County. 

The lawsuit marks yet another conflict between the two localities as Martinsville seeks to revert from an independent city to a town within Henry County, a multiyear process that has sparked state legislation and involved the Supreme Court of Virginia.

Martinsville filed the wastewater lawsuit in Richmond City Circuit Court in July against the State Water Control Board, the Department of Environmental Quality, DEQ Director Michael Rolband and the Henry County Public Service Authority.

The city argues that DEQ shouldn’t have granted a pollutant discharge permit for the Lower Smith River Wastewater Treatment Plant because it will result in the loss of revenues “essential” to the operation of Martinsville’s plant, duplication of wastewater infrastructure, increased rates for the community and “unnecessary adverse environmental impacts.” 

No hearings for the lawsuit have been scheduled according to online court records.

Martinsville cites cost worries

Martinsville has owned and operated a regional sewage facility since the 1960s and has been treating wastewater produced in Henry County there since the early 1970s. The Henry County Public Service Authority, which oversees water and sewer services for Henry County, deactivated its two wastewater plants, including the Lower Smith River plant, in 2005.

In 2016, however, the State Water Control Board awarded the Henry County authority a $23.6 million loan to potentially reopen the plant. 

According to the Martinsville Bulletin, Henry County then-Deputy Administrator Dale Wagoner said the authority had recently taken on more than 120 new sewer customers and was experiencing an increased call for sewage treatment services from the county’s industrial base, as the county wanted additional capacity for a business center.

Martinsville has opposed the permit, telling DEQ there is no current demand for increased capacity, and Martinsville customers would see a 25% increase in annual sewer rates if Henry County opened its own facility and stopped being a customer of the regional one.  

If Martinsville were to become a Henry County customer, Martinsville citizens would see about a 33% increase in annual sewer rates, the city wrote in comments to the agency.

“To conclude, there is NO scenario which produces lower rates for any resident of Martinsville and Henry County,” the city stated.

The reopening of the plant would also adversely impact the environment and encumber the Lower Smith River, a state scenic river that is used for trout fishing and is a regional tourism draw, with redundant pipelines transporting raw sewage, the suit contends. Reopening the plant would create a new discharge point to the river.

The suit claims DEQ and the State Water Control Board should not have issued the permit without determining the feasibility of combined or joint treatment facilities or seeking advice from local, regional or state planning authorities.

Martinsville has requested a public hearing on the permit and is asking the water board and DEQ to revisit their decision and evaluate whether issuing the permit is contrary to the public interest.

Since July, following legislation during the 2022 General Assembly session, the State Water Control Board has lost authority over permitting decisions. All water permits are now handled by DEQ.  

Martinsville attorney Andrea Wortzel declined to comment on the case.

Henry County says permit was consistent with planning

The Henry County Public Service Authority is seeking to have the case thrown out, saying the permit was issued consistent with the 2001 Roanoke River Basin Water Quality Management Plan as well as the more recent Water Quality Management Planning Regulation. 

The later document includes specific authorizations for wastewater to be discharged from both the Martinsville and Lower Smith River facilities. 

The Henry County authority further argues that Virginia law doesn’t require the State Water Control Board to determine whether a project fits into regional plans or consult with outside authorities beyond “the board’s duty to consider and issue (discharge) permits.”

Finally, the authority says Martinsville doesn’t provide a “concrete and particularized” injury in its suit and fails to present facts to back up its claims that reopening the Lower Smith River plant will adversely impact water quality in the vicinity of Martinsville and affect environmental justice communities. 

Wagoner, now Henry County Administrator, told the Mercury that the Lower Smith River permit process began in 2016 but declined to comment further on the pending lawsuit.

The State Water Control Board, DEQ and Rolband are also asking the court to throw the case out. A DEQ spokesperson declined to comment on the litigation.

Ongoing disputes between Martinsville and Henry County

The lawsuit comes as Martinsville, with a population of 13,000, seeks to revert to town status. 

Reversion allows cities with populations under 50,000 to become towns and have some services absorbed by the surrounding county. In Virginia, all cities are considered independent of the counties that surround them. Henry County has a population of about 51,000. 

In October 2021, the Commission on Local Government recommended that Martinsville revert to a town on July 1, 2023, but legislation passed in the last session put the choice of reversion to a referendum. 

Martinsville challenged the constitutionality of that law, which is scheduled for a hearing in front of a special three-judge panel on Dec. 5. Any decision could be appealed to the Supreme Court of Virginia.

The result of reversion would be the incorporation of the Martinsville school, courts, corrections, social services, health and elections systems into Henry County’s existing systems. 

There have been three other instances of reversion in Virginia involving  the city of South Boston and Halifax County; the city of Clifton Forge and Alleghany County; and the city of Bedford and Bedford County.

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Charlie Paullin
Charlie Paullin

Charles Paullin covers energy and environment for the Mercury. He previously worked for Northern Virginia Daily in the Northern Shenandoah Valley and for the New Britain Herald in central Connecticut. An Alexandria native, Charles graduated from the University of Hartford initially wanting to cover sports. He's received several Virginia Press Association awards for his coverage of crime, local government and state politics. Catch him in nature experiencing all the outdoors has to offer, and contact him at [email protected]

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