Sewers under fire in state Senate

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Sewers under fire in state Senate
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By Chris Teale (File photo)

The Virginia General Assembly kicked off the 2017 legislative session last week, and Alexandria’s sewers are on the agendas of lawmakers from inside the city and around the state.

Just one day after the legislature convened in Richmond January 11, the state Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee advanced a bill that would force the city to take expedited action to stop releasing more than 10 million gallons of raw sewage each year into the Potomac River by 2020.

If the bill becomes law, the city would lose all state fund- ing from 2020 until the issues are resolved.

The bill received two of its required three readings Monday and Tuesday on the state Senate floor. Its third reading took place Wednesday, after the Times’ print deadline.

The bill, introduced by state Sen. Richard Stuart (R-28), and its ramifications brought swift condemnation from local leaders.

“This bill is completely unreasonable,” said city spokes- man Craig Fifer. “It is not a serious environmental bill, it’s a bill that is designed to get the city’s attention or make some sort of statement to other people. It is virtually impossible to do the work involved that the bill requires, and the patron knows that. This is not responsible legislation, it’s not fair legislation and it’s not helpful legislation when we are already aggressively trying to deal with this problem.”

Officials with the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce raised concerns about the impact Richmond cutting state funding to the city would have on the business community, as well as its impact on capital projects.

“It is a draconian measure that unfairly targets all Alexandria business owners, citizens, employees, public servants — including public safety officers and teachers — and visitors because of a [combined sewer outfall] operation,” the chamber said in a statement. “The July 1, 2020 timeline identified in the legislation is completely non- sensical, virtually ensuring Alexandria will lose all state fund- ing in [three and a half] years.”

Similar legislation in the House of Delegates, sponsored by Fairfax County Delegate David Albo (R-42), is slated for discussion by the House committee on commerce and labor. Albo’s bill would look to bring the city into compliance by 2027, but does not currently mention any punitive measures.

A bill introduced by state Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-30), who represents part of Alexandria, requiring the city to complete an assessment of discharges into Oronoco Bay by 2029 failed in committee.

Fifer pointed to steps the city is already taking to deal with its four sewage outfalls into the Potomac River. In May 2016, the city updated its long-term sewer control plan to regulate sewage outfalls into Hunting Creek and Hoofs Run as part of the Chesapeake Bay cleanup.

In November, city staff returned with a plan to accelerate projects to reduce sewage outfalls into Oronoco Bay. Under the revised plan, a feasibility study of correcting those outfalls would begin in 2018, and engineering assessments carried out by 2026, six years earlier than planned. Under the plan in its original form, study of the Oronoco Bay outfall was not called for until 2032.

But local environmental advocates the Potomac Riverkeeper Network criticized the plan as inadequate.

Last week, the group released an announcement calling on the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to hold a public hearing on the updated plan, which the group said is sorely lacking.

“There’s no plan to fix raw sewage from outfall 001 at all, it’s just to review it 15 years from now,” said Potomac river keeper Dean Naujoks. “The bottom line is, a public hearing is an opportunity for VDEQ to hear from the public…This is a public asset, and the public has a right to weigh in on protecting existing uses, that’s the requirement under the Clean Water Act, that’s the law.”

VDEQ regional director Thomas Faha said in a December 19 letter that public participation exceeded the requirements of its combined sewer system permit. The network is appealing the decision.

The group pointed to water testing carried out by the city from 2007 to 2012 that found that the level of e.coli in the river violated state water quality standards. PRKN also found in its review of water quality testing that 51 percent of the city’s samples showed fecal bacteria at unsafe levels for human contact.

Naujoks noted that the Environmental Protection Agency wrote to the city in November requesting more information on various background data and a specific plan for a storage tank to capture stormwater and sewage before it is discharged.

EPA spokesman David Sternberg said in an email that some environmental groups had expressed concerns to the agency, so the letter was sent under section 308 of the Clean Water Act to demand information.

Fifer said the city is “put- ting forth considerable effort” on remediating its four sewage outfalls, regardless of the feelings of environmental groups or Richmond lawmakers.

“We have already committed about $190 million to address the first three of the four outfalls, and then we have a plan for the fourth one as well,” he said. “There is obviously a perception among some people that we’re not moving fast enough, and I think what it boils down to is basically that some people just don’t have the facts about what the city has already been doing, and some people also don’t have a frame of reference for what these massive capital projects involve.”

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