Your View: Alexandria must do more to protect the Potomac

Your View: Alexandria must do more to protect the Potomac

By Nick Kuttner, Vice chairman, Potomac Riverkeeper Network Board of Directors (File photo)

To the editor:
The Potomac Riverkeeper Network was encouraged to read that the City of Alexandria is moving forward with plans to renovate its combined sewer system. The statement that this is being done not only because the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality requires it, but also because it’s the right thing to do, is also encouraging.

But we are mystified by the absence of any mention of the amount of sewage the city still plans to dump into the Potomac River for the next 30 to 40 years. Of the 130 million gallons of sewage-contaminated water the city dumps into the Potomac every year, more than half of it — more than 70 million gallons per year — is dumped at the foot of Oronoco Bay Park into Oronoco Bay and thence the Potomac River by the city’s largest sewage outfall: Outfall 001.

Unfortunately, VDEQ has neglected to test or monitor Oronoco Bay for the exact same harmful sewage bacteria that is contaminating Hunting Creek. Hence, the city’s plan — the one touted by city officials — explicitly excludes Outfall 001 from its outfall elimination plans.

This deliberate omission is actually illegal under EPA regulations for the management and alleviation of combined sewer systems, and opens up the city to the likelihood of future legal action. It also practically ensures significant reputational and economic losses for the city, as it becomes widely known that the entire redeveloped waterfront is actually being built on what is essentially an open sewer.

How does the city anticipate explaining to the hoped for guests at its new luxury hotels that the sewage being dumped into the river at their very doorstep precludes any direct con- tact with the water?

The Potomac Riverkeeper Network, the Friends of Dyke Marsh, the Sierra Club and city residents all have brought this issue to the attention of staff and city council while attempting to have Outfall 001 eliminated along with the city’s other sewage outfalls. In addition, a member of the city’s own combined sewer citizens’ review committee presented city council with a very clear assessment of this egregious omission:

“The plan does not, for the most part, touch Outfall 001 that spews its pollution directly into the river from the foot of Pendleton Street. That outfall annually carries the largest amount of CSS pollution, estimated by staff variously from 43 percent to 50 percent of the total. … Moreover, there are no serious plans to begin to deal with Outfall 001 until after the projects for the other three outfalls are completed in 2035 and subsequently evaluated. Then planning for that pollution source would begin, with the completion date suggested as possibly 2048.”

Ironically, Alexandria’s Eco-City charter explicitly commits the city to “eliminate all sew- age outfalls.” Yet, all attempts to have them honor this commitment seem to have fallen on deaf ears.

If city council is truly committed to doing the right thing, it must not attempt to gain VDEQ approval for the current plan and instead: Live up to its Eco-City promises; stop flouting the EPA’s combined sewer system regulations; quickly ensure that the plan does not put the entire waterfront redevelopment program at risk, and plan for the elimination of Outfall 001 along with its three other sewage outfalls.