By James Cullum | [email protected]
After Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe (D) signed into law bills that will require Alexandria to have its aged sewer system outfalls updated by 2025, city leaders are making moves to change their plans.
McAuliffe’s decision was a major blow to the city, which formally wrote and asked the governor to veto the bill after the State Senate rejected his proposed amendment that would have extended the city’s deadline to 2027.
House Bill 2383 and Senate Bill 898 require that Alexandria begin remediating its four combined sewer outfalls by 2023, and complete the project by July 1, 2025. Previous language that punished Alexandria by withholding all state-level funding should the city not meet the deadline was stricken from the final text of the legislation.
Del. Mark Levine (D-45) said he was disappointed the governor did not veto both bills, while Vice Mayor Justin Wilson concurred the 2025 timeline is a stretch.
“We’ve been handed something impossible,” Levine said. “If unicorns can fly then maybe we’ll get it done by 2025. If they wanted to be helpful, the people who came up with this thing should come up with real plans.”
“It’s clearly disappointing,” Wilson said. “The city spends a lot of money to address the
obligations that the state doesn’t meet in other areas, like education, public safety, health. This just adds another thing to the list… It’s unfortunate they have created a timeline that is largely impossible, but we will make do with what we do, with a General Assembly and Governor’s office that has forgotten their obligation to local government. It is what it is.”
Sen. Richard Stuart (R-28), who wrote Senate Bill 898, had said that if the governor vetoed his bill that he would have introduced another bill next session with a harsher deadline.
“My constituents suffer from flesh-eating bacteria, vibrio vulnificus, giardia and I will tell you that that is largely attributable to the fecal matter that’s being dumped into the river and going on down into the bay,” Stuart said on the Senate floor. “This is a real public health issue… In less than 10 years we could put a man on the moon, but we can’t fix a doggone sewer pipe in eight years? I reject that entirely.”
Alexandria Mayor Allison Silberberg struck a more conciliatory tone.
“I share the deep frustration of many regarding the four outfalls, but the time for discussion and recrimination is over,” Silberberg said. “I am personally committed to moving us forward as swiftly as possible and getting this done. All of this must and will be addressed.”
City spokesman Craig Fifer said that the 2025 completion date is difficult because there are so many challenging facets to the project.
“We have to hire contractors. There is a process to that. We have to see who’s available at different times to do it. We have to see what we find in the ground from an environmental standpoint, from an archaeological standpoint. There are a lot of variables that come with massive capital projects,” he said.
“We’re doing this work in the middle of a thriving city. So, we have homes and businesses and it’s not reasonable to do pile driving 24 hours a day. It’s not reasonable to have an army of trucks come in, and we have to come up with a balance that is appropriate for a community environment,” Fifer said.
“This kind of work is already going to take tens of thousands of trucks removing dirt, it’s already going to take months, if not a year or more of pile driving at each of these locations,” he said. “Doing it 24 hours a day might be physically possible, but it’s not reasonable to deal with.”
The city is assuming it will receive $54 million in state aid for the project, and a number of legislators, including State Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-30) and Levine have pledged to introduce bills to help fund the project in the General Assembly’s session next year.
Ebbin (D-30) said that he will revisit the timeline issue with the State Senate in 2024 or thereabouts.
“After we’re in the construction phase, we’ll have a much better likelihood of extending a deadline if we need it. There is no guarantee, but cooler heads may prevail,” he said. “It’s not productive to bring this up over and over in the senate until this is underway. I think what my colleagues want to see in the senate is that this is getting done. Once this is underway, then and only then will it be productive to revisit the deadline.”
While most of the city has separate systems for waste and rainwater, around 540 acres in Old Town are served by a single pipe, or combined sewer, which dates back to the 1800s and sends a combination of raw sewage, waste and rainwater into the Potomac nearly every time it rains. Up to 70 million gallons of combined waste is estimated to flow into the river annually.
The city sent the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality its Long Term Control Plan in December, initially setting a 2035 completion date to address three of the city’s four outfalls. Outfall 001, which dumps into Oronoco Bay and the Potomac River, must now be included in the project.
“We’re working with all deliberate speed to comply with the terms of the legislation,” said Yon Lambert, the manager of the city’s department of transportation. “Alexandria rate payers are going to be seeing a gradual 500 percent increase in their sanitary sewer maintenance fees. Right now we pay about $50 a month. The increase, ultimately, is going to be up to $150 a month.”
City Manager Mark Jinks’ capital budget proposal includes $386 million to be spent on the outfalls over the next decade, paid for mainly by this sewer fee increase. Per the legislation, the city needs to present the Department of Environmental Quality with a plan by July 2018 on how to have the outfalls project completed by 2025. Next month, city staff will meet with DEQ to outline the work that needs to be completed during the interim.
The governor’s office did not return calls or messages for comment.