Alexandria’s efforts to address its long-standing sewage discharge into the Potomac River should be addressed by mid-2020, or the city will risk losing all its state appropriations, under a bill that passed a Virginia Senate committee Thursday.
The legislative action is far from complete — the bill must be voted on by the full Senate and then survive scrutiny in the House as well — but Sen. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax) said that he and several of his colleagues believe the city “has the financial capacity to fix these problems, but it’s dragging its feet.”
Alexandria is under a federal order to stop allowing sewer overflows into Hunting Creek, a Potomac River tributary, and it has given the state a $188 million plan for how it will do just that. But half of the raw sewage — about 11 million gallons — that the city sends into the Potomac each year empties into the Oronoco Bay in North Old Town, and no federal or state order demands that be stopped.
Under pressure from local residents and environmentalists, however, the Alexandria City Council voted in November to speed up a study of how to address that pollution by 14 years, with a study to start in 2018 and formal planning to start in 2026.
“To say or claim we are not doing enough is just not accurate,” said Alexandria Mayor Allison Silberberg. “We are fully committed to getting this done. In 2016 this council has taken major steps forward in commitments, plans and actions.”
While the General Assembly works through its bills, the Potomac Riverkeeper Network is pushing the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to hold a public hearing on the city’s long-term control plan for all the sewage that spills into the river each time it rains. The city’s own records, the environmental group says, show unsafe levels of fecal contamination in Oronoco Bay more than half the time the city has sampled the water there from 2007 to 2012.
“We are not asking them to eliminate pollution immediately,” said Phillip Musegaas, Potomac Riverkeepers’ vice president of programs and litigation. “We want to see them come up with a comprehensive plan that deals with all the sewage discharges from the city.”
Thomas Faha, the state DEQ’s regional director, responded in a Dec. 19 letter that “DEQ believes the city exceeded the public participation requirements of the permit and [combined sewer overflow] policy” and that given the council’s November action, Alexandria’s public participation has been “sufficiently robust such that there is no need for another public meeting.”
The environmental group is appealing that decision.
Alexandria, like more than 800 communities across the country, combines its sewage and storm water in an outdated network of pipes that lead to a waste treatment plant. When it rains, those pipes overflow, sending both storm water and sewage into the river.
The city plans to address the Oronoco Bay situation by installing green infrastructure on city property and making tougher demands on new development, requiring separate sewer and storm water systems, for example.
Two months ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency demanded details from the city, asking how much of the expected overflow the green infrastructure will reduce, where and when new pipes will be installed and information documenting overflows for the past five years.