A kayaker discovers the remains of a landfill at Colonial Beach
James Hall retired earlier this year and purchased a waterfront mobile home in Colonial Beach where he relishes life on Monroe Creek.
“I’m surrounded by beautiful views,” he said, looking out the sliding glass doors of his bedroom.
From his vantage point, he regularly sees bald eagles flying overhead. In fact, one took to the air as soon as a Free Lance-Star reporter and photographer arrived at his Westmoreland County home.
A brood of swans hatched from a nearby nest this spring and Hall jokes that they “need a runway like a 747” to take off. He marvels at the sound their wingtips make as they strike against the water, increasing their momentum to lift their bodies 20 or 30 pounds into the air.
But as Hall, 69, followed the winding curves of Monroe Creek — which feeds into Greater Monroe Bay and eventually the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay — he encountered horror and potential health hazard.
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In the shallower parts of the creek, the banks are encrusted with glass bottles of various shapes and sizes. Some once held sodas, pickles, or liquid cleansers; they are brown, blue, and white with wide mouths, jug handles, or serrated edges.
Further downstream are piles of rusted metal, carcasses of old appliances, bottles that probably contained propane, and cans of paint thrown on the ground. There are even a few decrepit vehicles on the higher banks, their railings and chassis cutting through the underbrush.
From a kayak in the creek, it’s hard to see anything lurking along the banks.
“It makes me sick to watch it,” Hall said, pointing to the stakes. “I couldn’t honestly ignore it because I have kids, grandkids, neighbors, everyone comes here.”
Hall did not keep silent about his discovery. He asked questions of longtime residents, filed a formal complaint with Westmoreland County and spoke with Robin Schick, Mayor of Colonial Beach.
Here’s the situation: At the time, the city operated a landfill, not far from the creek and the birthplace of James Monroe, said Norm Risavi, Westmoreland County Administrator for 30 years.
The makeshift landfill was not used in its day, but before the days of strict environmental regulations and lined landfills, people would go to a remote location and dump their trash. Hall thinks they probably started at the edge of Monroe Creek and came back. The elders told him they remembered visiting the dump up to 70 years ago.
Over time, some of the waste has settled into the ground. As the creek banks eroded, the encrusted bottles surfaced.
In mid-October, Hall raised concerns about waste and possible water contamination with the Westmoreland Land Use Office. He spoke with three people over the next two weeks, then contacted the newspaper when he did not receive a follow-up call.
Risavi checked with his staff after the newspaper contacted him, and he contacted Hall. Hall invited him to take a kayak ride and see for himself – just as he showed the newspaper staff – but Risavi is recovering from a knee injury and couldn’t risk a boat ride .
The two determined that the trashcan Hall saw was part of the landfill and was on 27 acres owned by the City of Colonial Beach.
A Westmoreland ordinance allows him to notify property owners who have piles of trash on their property. If they don’t comply and clean up the mess, the county will and add the cost to the person’s tax bill, Risavi said. But because the city is tax-exempt, as are all local governments, the ordinance does not apply in this case, he added.
The same day he met Hall, Risavi contacted the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to see if there were any grants that could help the city clean up. A DEQ official is making arrangements to view the property, Risavi said Wednesday.
“It’s not something a few thousand dollars will fix,” he said.
He also contacted an engineering firm to take water samples from the area. Like Hall, he worries about what might be there. Samples passed in Monroe Bay showed polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, Risavi said. They are highly carcinogenic chemical compounds, formerly used in industrial and consumer products. Their production was banned in 1979 by the Environmental Protection Agency.
“I think the important thing is to do sampling and have a clear picture of what happens if there are contaminants,” Risavi said. “I know in the past we’ve wondered whether or not some of this could leak out of this old landfill. It’s hard to say what was thrown in there.
Schick, the mayor of Colonial Beach, said she was familiar with some of the trash found by Hall, but did not go further into Monroe Creek, where the largest piles are. About a decade ago, she and Mitzi Saffos, owner of Colonial Beach Brewing, started a local Save the Bay campaign in Colonial Beach because of their mutual concern about water quality.
The two arranged for groups of Marines to come and attack part of the mess at Monroe Creek. They focused on the area across from the Monroe Bay mobile home park where Hall lives. The Marines worked from their kayaks and dumped bottles and other trash which they dislodged into a pontoon boat.
The day’s effort produced a lot of bric-a-brac and the workers had muddy hands and boots but barely made a dent.
“We felt a bit defeated because there was still a lot to do,” Schick said.
Over the next few years, she said the Save the Bay campaign focused on more accessible areas.
Schick said there are questions about property lines, old records and who owns what, but there’s no need to quibble over those details.
“We have to do everything we can to protect our ecosystem here because we depend on it vitally, our economy depends on it, our food depends on it,” she said. “We want to have clean waterways and healthy fisheries.
Westmoreland officials also contacted Schick after Hall and Risavi met. There’s talk of collaborating on another living shoreline project similar to what the county and city did on Robin Grove Lane, “another place that had landfill issues a long time ago,” Schick said.
The project included DEQ grants and technical assistance from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.
While it’s unclear if a similar oyster clean-up and restoration project would work in Monroe Creek, one thing is clear: Hall won’t let the trash heaps ruin the retirement home he loves.
Like some of the bottles he discovered, Hall was shattered when he moved to the water after divorce separated him from three of his seven children. As he got to know his older neighbors, he began to “drive Miss Daisy”, taking four women and two men to doctor’s appointments or to the grocery store.
He thought it was God’s purpose in moving it to Monroe Creek, but when he saw the piles of trash along the water, he took on a secondary cause.
“This is like a mission now,” Hall said. “I can’t let this go until it’s cleaned up.”
Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425