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Troubled Waters: ESVA Pollution Clash between Vegetable Cannery and Seafood Co. in the 1930s

Updated: Jun 16, 2021

Edited and Arranged by Clelia Sheppard

Back in the 1930s, in Cheriton, Va. situated in Northampton County on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, there were two beloved businesses that are still revered today.

The G. L. Webster Canning factory became the largest canning facility in the U.S. and was the largest employer on the Eastern Shore.

The second was E. J. Steelman, whose Oyster tin boasted “Opened and packed on the famous Cherrystone Creek”.

The trouble began in 1936 when E. J. Steelman began to suffer damages to his land because of offensive odors caused by the pollution of tidal waters which were cast upon the land and oyster beds. Seems the water was polluted from Webster’s Cannery which was located on the east side of Cheriton. The only form of drainage for the refuse and waste was a ditch that ran into Hanby’s branch, Eyre Hall Creek, Cherrystone Creek and into the Chesapeake Bay.

E.J. Steelman sued G.L. Webster for damages and the case wound up in the Supreme Court of Virginia in 1939. “The wife of the plaintiff testified that the odor was so bad that, "You can't eat your food, can't sleep for the stink, and shut your windows to keep the stink out, and the heat is so bad." The odors were so offensive that the plaintiff was compelled to keep the windows and doors of his home closed even in the hottest weather, so that he could not continue to live there with any degree of comfort, or engage in his work on the shore, or bathe in the waters of his beach.”

“Numerous witnesses testified that the fish, terrapin, crabs, oysters, and clams were destroyed, or rendered useless, by the pollution in the waters. A biologist of the Federal Bureau of Fisheries made certain tests of the waters, and testified that as a result of those tests he believed the waste and refuse from the vegetable matter cast into the waters was the cause of the destruction of the fish, oysters, and seafood. Other witnesses were in doubt as to whether the destruction was caused in part, or in whole, by the pollution.” The jury ruled in favor of Steelman for damages to his land, but not his seafood in the water. Webster had to clean out the creeks one or two times a year.

The late Mr. John David Steelman II, son of Emory J. Steelman, part of a legacy on the Shore of Commercial Aquaculture Enterprises & their intricate history of environmental politics

Humans began measurably and negatively impacting water quality in the Chesapeake Bay in the first half of the 19th century, according to a study of eastern oysters by researchers at The University of Alabama. Today’s "wars" are against parasites and pollution. Everyone wants to save the bay, but no one wants to be inconvenienced to do it.

Journal of Natural Resources Law, published March 23, 1983

Almost one hundred years later, our historic lands and tidal waters are still being polluted by industry and agriculture. We are a thin strip of land between two large bodies of water. There is nowhere for the pollution to go except into our ground water and into the creeks and out to the bay. It is imperative that we protect our water sources now, how many times does history have to repeat itself before we take notice and change our ways?

For the second time in a row, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation scored the bay’s health a D+ in 2020. Pesticides, pharmaceuticals, metals and other toxic contaminants can harm the health of humans and affect the survival, growth and reproduction of fish and wildlife.

Laura Smith

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