Council votes to accelerate Oronoco Bay sewage fix

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Council votes to accelerate Oronoco Bay sewage fix
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By Chris Teale (File photo)

City councilors last week unanimously approved a plan to accelerate projects to reduce the outfall of raw sewage into Oronoco Bay, but environmental advocates said not enough is being done.

At its legislative meeting November 9, council agreed to a proposal by the city’s department of transportation and environmental services that updates the long-term sewer control plan approved last May.

Under the revised plan, the study examining the feasibility of correcting the sew- age outfall into Oronoco Bay in the Potomac River would accelerate to 2018, while additional funding for so-called green infrastructure and sewer separation would be made available.

At the meeting, city transportation director Yon Lambert also said engineering assessments would be carried out in 2026, six years earlier than originally planned. Under the long-term control plan as it was approved in May, study of the Oronoco Bay outfall is not called for until 2032.

The city is mandated by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to regulate outfalls into Hunting Creek and Hoofs Run as part of the cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay, into which they drain via the Potomac River. But while VDEQ does not mandate the same regulation in Oronoco Bay, the city is pursuing remediation voluntarily.

“Alexandria is fully committed being a strong environmental steward and to significantly reducing combined sewer overflows from all four city outfalls, including Oronoco Bay,” said Mayor Allison Silberberg. “[Given] the magnitude of the construction that will be necessary, the city’s timeline is a reasonable and responsible approach to addressing this important issue. It will take years to complete these projects, and we are committed to taking action and moving forward.”

The plan approved by council in May will cost upwards of $188 million, while the cost to fully address the Oronoco Bay outfall would add up to an extra $130 million. Council instructed staff to examine various scenarios for that outfall with its approval in May, after a minority report by sewer stakeholder group member Jack Sullivan called for an accelerated timeline.

In an interview, Sullivan praised council and staff for what he called a “modest step,” but noted that the city will continue to put tens of thousands of gallons of raw sewage into the Potomac River for years to come.

“I thank them for paying attention. I think this is a step, and I thank them for it, but it’s a modest step,” he said. “For the foreseeable future, we’re go- ing to continue to be throwing a great deal of sewage into the Potomac River. … I’m hopeful that as we get further down the line on the other outfalls, that it will be possible to consider- ably accelerate that timetable for dealing with outfall No. 1.”

But councilors came in for criticism at a public hearing last Saturday, as several people came out to voice their strong displeasure with the timeline for fixing the Oronoco Bay outfall. City officials said in a statement that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and VDEQ recognize that such projects have long planning times and can be very disruptive, so using a long-term, phased approach is best.

But that was not enough for environmental advocacy group the Potomac Riverkeepers Network, whose members said they wished to see solutions quicker.

“It is clear you are accelerating a schedule of studies,” said Nicholas Kuttner, vice chairman of the network’s board of directors. “You are not accelerating a cleanup of the Potomac River. Before you spend too much time congratulating yourselves on that, you need to recognize that that does not really impress anybody.”

Potomac river keeper Dean Naujoks said Alexandria is “way behind other cities” in dealing with the problem, which councilors said is widespread and affects more than 800 cities nationwide with similarly old sewer systems. Alexandria’s dates back to the early 1800s.

Naujoks said given the river’s use, such conditions cannot be allowed to continue.

“You’ve got a plan that’s pretty good. You’re fixing [three] outfalls,” he said. “But you have it backwards. The area where you’re trying to redevelop your waterfront, the area where you have kids at T.C. Williams rowing and swimming are coming in contact with raw sewage. The outfall that discharges the most amount of sewage into the river is the one that’s going to get fixed last, and you need to fix that.”

Naujoks went on to suggest that the Potomac Riverkeepers Network knows more about the long-term sewer control plan than city staff, something City Councilor Paul Smedberg took exception to.

“That is really an unfair comment to say, given what this council, prior councils and city staff have put into this,” Smedberg said.

“It’s not good enough,” said Naujoks in response. “I’m sorry.”

Naujoks added that the network intends to “embarrass” the city into taking quicker action, and that they may pursue legal action.

The average household sewer bill is expected to increase to between $660 and $900 per year to pay for the work at the three outfalls into Hunting Creek and Hoofs Run. Monthly sewer bills could further increase to a total of 50 percent over today’s amounts. The city also intends to seek state funding from the Virginia General Assembly to help pay for remediating all four outfalls.

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