Ed Parry rolled his eyes back in desperation and chopped his hands angrily through the air to stress his point.
"These environmentalists," he exclaimed. "These environmentalists have more feeling for some off-breed of worm out there in Chesapeake Bay than they do for human beings."
What prompted Parry's outburst was an announcement last week that Texas-based Brown & Root Inc. has halted its plans for a gargantuan off-shore oil rig factory here on the tip of Virginia's poor, rural Eastern Shore. The company's announcement cited changing economic conditions, not environmentalists, but Parry insisted nonetheless that if it had not been for environmental groups, the factory would be here by now.
Brown & Root's plant would have brought thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in investments to Northampton County, where the median family income ($6,909 in 1975) is half the Virginia average and the shacks of the poor far outnumber the looming farmhouses of the wealthy.
An outspoken minority of the county's 15,000 residents, mostly farmers and landowners, joined with environmentalists to fight the proposal in the courts when the plans were first announced five years ago. Partly because of the delays their opposition caused and the failure of oil companies to make a major oil discovery off the East Coast, the big plant appears unlikely to be built.
It would have been larger than the Pentagon, contained one of the world's largest dry docks and created at least 3,000 jobs within three years.
The Brown & Root announcement that it was suspending plans for construction of the plant provoked bitterness among the plant supporters, including Parry who won election to the three-member County Board of Supervisors in 1975 on a pro-industry platform. To Parry, the opponents were "silver spoons" and "a bunch of goody-two-shoes" who would deny the region the prosperity that many other sections of the industrializing South long have known.
In a sense, the Brown & Root controversy is an example of the paradoxical Virginia conservatism that advocates business, but disdains the growth in government that often comes with it.
Harold Wescott, the only county supervisor to oppose the plant, said last week the opponents would not have objected to a smaller project. But, "We felt it was too mammoth an operation for this community," said Wescott, who calls himself a newcomer because his family did not settle here until 1690.
"We'd have to have larger schools, more police, door-to-door refuse pickup, all of which costs money," Wescott said. "It would have destroyed our way of life here."
Parry, pointing to the $4.5 million annual welfare budget in a county of barely 15,000 residents, rejects that argument. "The principal objectors to welfare are the same people opposed to Brown & Root," he scoffed.
"These people just didn't like the idea of losing their playground," said J. Crawley Lewis, manager of a local store that once sold hats with Brown & Root emblems to supporters. "For the majority of people it is not the great life style it is for the landowners."
Life here has changed only slowly, in fact, since the area was first settled in 1614. Descendants of the original settlers still live on farms, some of them exceeding 1,000 acres, that have been handed down through the generations and farmed by migrant laborers.
Those residents not dependent on vegetable farming for a living are likely to be involved in the Shore-s famous fishing industry. Cherrystone Creek near here gave its name to a clam, one seaside village is named Oyster and another in nearby Accomack County is named Clam.
Despite Wescott's insistence that "anybody who wants a job has got one here," most positions available are either low-paying jobs in packing plants or seasonal jobs in vegetable fields.
"The minimum wage for six to eight months is not much to sustain a family," said store manager Lewis.
A third of the population lives below the federal poverty level, according to County Administrator Keith Bull, who notes that young people annually desert the shore because of the lack of ways to earn a living. Plant opponents "are leaving people out of the picture," Bull says.
There are also racial undercurrents to the controversy. Blacks, who make up nearly 52 percent of the population, largely supported Brown & Root. Supervisor Wescott, who has toured a Brown & Root plant in Texas, said one reason he frowns on it is that "White people don't like that kind of work."
But most residents contend that is a minor aspect in an issue that they say has strained friendships more than anything since the Civil War. That is one reason why George J. Savage, leader of the plant's opponents, is no longer Parry's business partner. Savage declined to comment, but Parry says they barely speak anymore.
The plaint's supporters, meanwhile, note that the company has only "suspended" its plans. "We still have hopes," said Lewis. "They haven't said they're going to abandon the thing."
A Texas spokesman for Brown & Root Last week left little cause for his hope. "Brown & Root is in a period of reassessment of the eventual use of this property," the official told the Associated Press. He said the company could resume it's planning at a later date or sell the site.