Environmental groups sue Henrico County over chronic sewage violations

Groups say more than 66 million gallons of raw sewage released into regional waterways since 2016

By: - December 6, 2021 6:17 pm

An overflow site off Stoney Run Parkway that is part of the Henrico sewer collection system in August 2021. (Jamie Brunkow/James River Association)

Three environmental groups are suing Henrico County over what they say is a failure to fix chronic problems with its sewage collection system and treatment plant that has led to more than 66 million gallons of raw sewage being dumped into the James River and its tributaries since 2016. 

In a suit filed in federal court Monday, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and James River Association, the latter represented by watchdog group Environmental Integrity Project, allege that Henrico County has shown “flagrant disregard” for pollution limits set by the state under the federal Clean Water Act. 

Henrico “has been provided numerous opportunities, over approximately 28 years, to address egregious and consistent pollution from” the Henrico County Water Reclamation Facility, the suit reads. “Despite this, the facility has continued to violate the terms of its [state] permit and the CWA.” 

Henrico County spokesperson Kristin Dunlop said in an email that “the county is reviewing this lawsuit and looks forward to a full presentation of the facts through the legal process.” 

The environmental groups are seeking to force Henrico to craft a more comprehensive solution to the ongoing pollution discharges. They are also asking the court to assess civil penalties against Henrico and to order that it remediate any harm caused by violations. 

“In order to meaningfully address Henrico’s reoccurring clean water violations and protect public health and the environment, Henrico should abide by legally binding milestones, including an ultimate end date to stop these pollution events,” said Sylvia Lam, an attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project, during a press call Monday.  

Since the Henrico Water Reclamation Facility began operating in November 1989, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality has issued dozens of notices of violation to the county for excess pollution and sanitary sewer overflows associated with the treatment plant and sewage collection system. 

DEQ has also issued the sewer system and facility four consent orders, an enforcement mechanism used by the agency to compel a violator to resolve environmental problems and sometimes pay penalties. 

Consent orders were issued to Henrico in 1993, 1998, 2003 and 2010, with penalties totaling $53,000. 

Another consent order with an attached penalty of $207,680 — of which $155,750 would go toward environmental work — is still being finalized.  A DEQ spokesman did not immediately respond Monday to several questions about the violations.

Among the most recent violations recorded in the lawsuit are 238 overflows of raw, untreated sewage into the James River and its tributaries between September 2016 and June 2021. The sewage treatment plant has also consistently exceeded its permitted limits for suspended solids and a factor called “carbonaceous biochemical oxygen demand” that measures the extent to which wastewater can deprive a body of water of oxygen. 

The James River at the Pony Pasture in Richmond. The river is the source of drinking water for the city. (Sarah Vogelsong/ Virginia Mercury)

“Henrico County through its operation of the Henrico Water Reclamation facility has contributed an exorbitant amount of pollutants to the James River basin over the last 30 years,” said Chesapeake Bay Foundation attorney Taylor Lilley. The county “has jeopardized the health of the James River and its tributaries and posed significant health risks to surrounding communities.” 

On Monday, Bay Foundation and James River Association representatives also called for enforcement measures to include mandatory notification of residents when overflows occur. 

The Henrico County Water Reclamation Facility has a broad footprint, accepting residential, commercial and industrial pollution from over 250,000 users in Henrico and parts of Hanover, Richmond and Goochland. 

“Other cities and counties have been required to provide public notice when sewage overflows occur in local creeks and streams. … Many members of the public are unaware that the waterways they use for fun, for business, are contaminated by raw sewage from these overflows,” said Lam. 

While neighboring Richmond is also plagued with persistent sewer overflow problems, most of the city’s woes stem from its more than 100-year-old combined sewer system, a type of infrastructure that routes stormwater and wastewater flows through the same pipes, leading to sewer overflows during heavy precipitation. 

Three cities in Virginia — Richmond, Alexandria and Lynchburg — have historically had combined sewer systems, and both Richmond and Alexandria have been placed on strict timelines by the General Assembly to finish overhauling them. Lynchburg is on track to complete its work in the next five years. 

Henrico’s system, however, has separate pipes for stormwater and wastewater. 

The attorneys said that the groups have been engaging in conversations with the county to address the pattern of violations but had reached the conclusion that they needed to take legal action. 

“We have seen how those enforcement efforts have played out over the last 30 years,” said Lilley. “And as we’ve said, they have not proven sufficient to address the issues from Henrico or its facility, and there’s not a realistic end date in point that will stop this kind of enforcement action from continuing.”

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.