A Republican senator’s efforts to push back a deadline for Richmond to complete the separation of its stormwater and sewer systems by five years has some city officials and Democrats in the General Assembly concerned, who say townspeople could be burdened with excessively high bills.
“The big concern is that the city can’t afford to do this on its own. And so far the money given by the state hasn’t been enough,” said Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D- Richmond.”Everyone keeps saying there could be federal funding and additional state funding. But if that doesn’t come, then the only way the city can pay for that is to increase the sewer rates.
City officials say without outside help, fares could triple and that technical constraints make it virtually impossible to ramp up work beyond the current completion date of 2035, a schedule they say has been heavily negotiated at the General Assembly session two years ago.
But Senator Richard Stuart, R-Stafford, said the current situation – which led to nearly 2 billion gallons of stormwater and sewage flowing into the James River last year – is untenable and created the worst environmental crisis Virginia currently faces.
“It’s one of the biggest sources of pollution we have, and we need to do everything we can to stop it,” Stuart said. “We are not a third world country. It’s 2022. We shouldn’t be doing this anymore.
Pressure Alexandria and Richmond
Richmond is one of three cities in Virginia that for years has struggled with pollution from combined sewer overflow systems.
In these systems, which were built in the 19th century, storm runoff and sewage flow through the same pipes. When climatic conditions are normal, everything that is in the pipes ends up in the treatment plant. But when there are heavy rains, the system can become overwhelmed and send both stormwater and untreated sewage into the river at overflow points called outfalls.
Over the years, cities in Virginia have phased out the systems, a process that can be both expensive and technically difficult. In 1990, Covington, Alexandria, Lynchburg, and Richmond were the only cities that still had combined sewer systems.
Covington largely halted its outbursts in the 1990s, while Lynchburg is nearing completion. In 2017, Stuart and Senator Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, successfully a bill setting a 2025 deadline for Alexandria to bring its combined sewer system into compliance with state and federal laws. The legislation caused an outcry: a lawmaker denounced it as “fiery villainand the city asked the governor at the time. Terry McAuliffe (D) to veto it, although he refused to do so.
With the 2025 deadline enshrined in law, Alexandria is preparing to clean up its last four emissaries and build a massive tunnel two miles long which can transport and store excess sewage beneath the city and adjacent Potomac River.
Stuart says Alexandria is proof that pressuring cities to fix their combined sewer problems works.
“At the end of the day, they beat the schedule,” he told the Mercury. “And the reason they did it was because we kept the pressure on and they made it a top priority.”
Following the Alexandria Bill, Stuart in 2020 championed similar legislation setting a 2027 deadline for Richmond. After lengthy negotiations, the city agreed on a completion date of 2035, with a draft plan expected last July and a final plan in 2024.
“We’ve given you this draft plan, and we’re well on our way to complying with it,” Bob Steidel, Richmond’s assistant general manager, told a Senate committee Jan. 18. “We’re actually ahead of our final plan which is because of you in ’24. We think we’re in good shape now to be able to present it to you at the next General Assembly.
But while Richmond viewed the 2035 date as a “stretch goal”, in McClellan’s words, Stuart still believed it allowed too much pollution to continue flowing into the James. He was especially upset that over the past year, overflows amounted to nearly 2 billion gallons of stormwater and sewage.
In 2020, the city was “very reluctant to do anything. In order to get the bill out, I had to compromise more than I really liked,” he said. “I was never happy with it, but if they made a concerted effort and I felt like they really made it a top priority, I wouldn’t come back with another bill.”
Ultimately, he said he was “not convinced they would make it a top priority” and introduced legislation this session to accelerate the deadline to 2030.
“This kind of pollution is shocking to me, and it should be shocking to everyone,” he said. “And if we don’t keep pushing, they’ll keep kicking the road like they’ve been doing for years and years.”
“The scale of the programs is not even comparable”
City officials, however, say the situation is not as simple as Stuart claims.
“People are frustrated that Lynchburg and Alexandria seem to be going faster. What they don’t appreciate is that the scope of the problem for the city is so much bigger,” McClellan said. “I think that’s the element that gets lost in the conversation.”
As Alexandria struggles to address four outfalls, Richmond has 25, a number it reduced from an initial tally of 46. While Alexandria’s combined sewer system drains an area of 0, 8 square miles, that of Richmond serves 19 square miles, including some 950 miles of pipe with an average age of 114 years. And while plans for Alexandria hinge on building one extremely large tunnel for sewer overflows, earlier plans for Richmond included as many as five.
Engineering consultants retained by the city estimate that the design, permitting and construction of the new system would take at least 11 years.
“The scale of the programs is not even comparable,” Steidel told senators in January. “Richmond’s program is comparable to that of Washington, DC. And while I really commend my colleagues in Alexandria for doing what they did, our problem is much more difficult.
The financial needs in Richmond are also much greater. Various Legislature commitments would funnel $150 million to Richmond for the combined sewer overflow work, and the city intends to match that amount.
Still, officials estimated that the 2035 deadline would require an additional $1 billion, a figure that prompted Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Fairfax, to utter an incredulous “Jesus” at a committee meeting.
The city says it’s money it doesn’t have and taxpayers can’t afford on their own. Currently, residents of Richmond pay an average monthly sewer bill of $64. Without additional state or federal support, that bill could almost triple, to $185 a month. In a city with a poverty rate of 24%, city leaders say that will be too much of a burden for many households to bear.
“We did an exhaustive analysis,” Steidel told the Mercury. “We just can’t find a way to keep the rate impact” low enough.
Stuart, however, said he thought sewer rate concerns were “an excuse in my mind not to fix this problem” and urged the city to do more to find federal funds for the sewers. works.
According to multiple accounts, Andrew Wheeler, Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s controversial choice for the position of Natural and Historic Resources Secretary, presented a plan to Richmond for how to fund the[projectButwhileSteidesaidhewasimpressedwithWheeler’sworkhealsosaiditwouldrequireRichmondtoborrowmorethanthecitycouldmaintain[projectButwhileSteidelsaid[projetMaisalorsqueSteideladéclaréqu’ilavaitétéimpressionnéparletravaildeWheelerilaégalementdéclaréquecelaobligeraitRichmondàemprunterplusquelavillenepouvaitenentretenir[projectButwhileSteidelsaidhehadbeenimpressedbyWheeler’sworkhealsosaiditwouldrequireRichmondtoborrowmorethanthecitycouldservice
“We’ve borrowed all the money we can already,” he said.
The Youngkin administration did not provide any details of Wheeler’s plan.
Stuart said his legislation is already getting federal attention, citing a visit in late January by Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan and Democratic members of Virginia’s congressional delegation to Richmond. Shahid Ahmed, spokesman for U.S. Representative Donald McEachin, D-Richmond, confirmed that the city’s combined sewer overflow issue was discussed during the shutdown.
“Pressuring them, we now have (Senator) Tim Kaine and Don McEachin both trying to find ways to get federal money to help them,” Stuart said. “If we hadn’t applied more pressure, we wouldn’t have gotten this attention.”
Stuart’s bill passed the Senate on Friday, but with one key change: Amendments introduced by McClellan would allow Richmond to receive an extension of its deadlines if the city has not received sufficient state or federal funding to cover costs without negatively impacting taxpayers, especially those defined as economically disadvantaged.
McClellan described the amendment as “essentially a shift for the new schedule” if help was not available.
Stuart said he found the change “reprehensible” because “it takes the pressure off and they can just keep kicking the streets”. Still, he urged the Senate to pass the bill, and on Friday cleared the chamber by a 36-4 vote, with Sens. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, Ghazala Hashmi, D-Chesterfield and Mamie Locke, D-Hampton opposite.
The bill will now go to the House of Delegates for consideration and may have other changes: At a meeting of the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee this week, Senator Chap Petersen, D -Fairfax said he had “a feeling that we’re going to be negotiating this in conference.
As the legislature continues its debate, Steidel said the city is continuing its work. Later this year, capacity at the Richmond sewage treatment plant is expected to increase from 90 million gallons per day to 140 million gallons, an upgrade that would further reduce existing overflows.
“By God, we’re going to do it,” Steidel said. “We just need money, time and people.”