Senator pushes to speed up Richmond combined sewer fix

City says it’s already doing everything it can 

By: - February 14, 2022 12:02 am

The James River in Richmond after a storm. (Sarah Vogelsong / Virginia Mercury)

A Republican senator’s push to bump up the deadline for Richmond to finish separating its stormwater and sewer systems by five years worries some city officials and Democrats in the General Assembly, who say city dwellers could be burdened with excessively high bills.

“The big concern is the city cannot 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. “Everybody keeps saying that there could be federal funding and additional state funding. But if that doesn’t come, then the only way the city can pay for this is through increasing the sewer rates.” 

City officials say that without outside assistance, rates could triple, and that engineering constraints make it virtually impossible to speed up work beyond the current 2035 completion date, a timeline they point out was heavily negotiated during the General Assembly session two years ago.  

But Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Stafford, said the present situation — which led to almost 2 billion gallons of combined stormwater and sewage flowing into the James River last year — is untenable and has created the worst environmental crisis Virginia is currently facing. 

“This is one of the most significant sources of pollution that we have, and we’ve got to do everything in our power to stop it,” said Stuart. “We’re not a third-world country. It’s 2022. We should not be doing this anymore.” 

Putting pressure on Alexandria and Richmond 

Richmond is one of three cities in Virginia that for years has been grappling with pollution from combined sewer overflow systems. 

In these systems, which were constructed in the 19th century, runoff from storms and sewage flow through the same pipes. When weather conditions are normal, everything in the pipes ends up at the wastewater treatment plant. But when there is heavy rain, the system can become overwhelmed and send both stormwater and untreated sewage into the river at overflow points called outfalls. 

Over the years, Virginia cities have phased out the systems, a process that can be both expensive and technically challenging. By 1990, Covington, Alexandria, Lynchburg and Richmond were the only cities that still had combined sewer systems. 

Covington largely halted its overflows in the 1990s, while Lynchburg is on the brink of completing its work. In 2017, Stuart and Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, pushed through a bill setting a 2025 deadline for Alexandria to bring its combined sewer system into compliance with state and federal law. The legislation caused an outcry: one lawmaker decried it as “mean spirited,” and the city asked then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) to veto it, although he declined to do so. 

With the 2025 deadline enshrined in law, Alexandria is moving to remediate its last four outfalls and to build a massive two-mile-long tunnel that can carry and store excess wastewater beneath the city and the adjacent Potomac River. 

Stuart says Alexandria is proof that putting pressure on cities to fix their combined sewer problems works. 

“At the end of the day, they beat the timeline,” he told the Mercury. “And the reason they did it is 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 extensive negotiations, the city agreed to a 2035 completion date, with an interim plan due last July and a final plan in 2024. 

“We have given you that interim plan, and we are on track to comply with it,” Bob Steidel, Richmond’s deputy chief administrative officer, told a Senate committee Jan. 18. “We’re actually ahead of schedule on our final plan that’s due to you in ’24. We think we’re in good shape now to be able to present it to you for next General Assembly.”

But while Richmond saw the 2035 date as a “stretch goal,” in McClellan’s words, Stuart still thought it allowed too much pollution to continue flowing into the James. He was particularly upset that over the last year, overflows had amounted to almost 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 make more compromises than I really liked,” he said. “I was never happy with it, but if they made concerted efforts and I felt like they were really making it a top priority, I wouldn’t come back with another bill.” 

Ultimately, he said he was “not convinced they’re making it a top priority” and brought forward a bill this session to accelerate the deadline to 2030. 

“That kind of pollution is shocking to me, and it should be shocking to everybody,” he said. “And if we don’t continue to apply pressure, they will keep kicking this can down the road as they’ve done for years and years and years.” 

A sewer pipe that is part of Richmond’s James River Park Pipeline. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

‘The scale of the programs are not even comparable’

City representatives, however, say the situation isn’t quite as simple as Stuart claims. 

“People are frustrated that Lynchburg and Alexandria seem to be moving faster. What they don’t appreciate is the scope of the issue for the city is so much bigger,” said McClellan. “I think that’s the piece that is getting lost in the conversation.” 

While Alexandria is working to remediate four outfalls, Richmond has 25, a number it has cut from an original tally of 46. While Alexandria’s combined sewer system drains an area of 0.8 square miles, Richmond’s serves 19 square miles, including some 950 miles of pipe with an average age of 114 years. And while Alexandria’s plans hinge on the construction of one extremely large tunnel for sewer overflows, earlier plans for Richmond have included as many as five.  

Engineering consultants retained by the city estimate that designing, permitting and constructing the new system would take 11 years at a minimum. 

“The scale of the programs are not even comparable,” Steidel told senators in January. “The City of Richmond’s program is comparable to Washington, D.C.’s program. And while I really laud my colleagues in Alexandria for getting done what they’ve gotten done, our problem is much more difficult.” 

The financial needs in Richmond are also far greater. Various commitments by the legislature would funnel $150 million to Richmond for combined sewer overflow work, and the city intends to put up a matching amount. 

Still, officials have estimated that the 2035 deadline would require an additional $1 billion, a number that caused Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Fairfax, to utter an incredulous “Jesus” during one committee meeting.

The city says that’s money it doesn’t have and ratepayers can’t bear alone. Currently, Richmonders pay an average monthly sewer bill of $64. In the absence of additional state or federal support, that bill could nearly triple, to $185 per month. In a city with a poverty rate of 24 percent, city leaders say that will be a burden too heavy for many households to bear. 

“We’ve done exhaustive analysis,” Steidel told the Mercury. “We just can’t figure out a way to keep the rate impact” low enough. 

Stuart, however, said he thought the concerns about sewer rates were “an excuse in my mind not to fix this problem” and has urged the city to put more effort into finding federal funds for the work. 

According to several accounts, Andrew Wheeler, Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s controversial pick for secretary of natural and historic resources, has presented a plan to Richmond for how to finance the [project. But while Steidel said he had been impressed by Wheeler’s work, he also said it would require Richmond to borrow more than the city could service.

“We’ve borrowed all the money we already can,” he said. 

The Youngkin administration did not provide any details of Wheeler’s plan. 

Stuart said his legislation is already attracting federal attention, citing a late January visit by Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan and Democratic members of Virginia’s congressional delegation to Richmond. Shahid Ahmed, a spokesperson for U.S. Rep. Donald McEachin, D-Richmond, confirmed that the city’s combined sewer overflow issue was discussed during the stop. 

“By putting pressure on them, now we’ve got (Sen.) Tim Kaine and Don McEachin both trying to figure out ways to get federal money to help,” said Stuart. “If we hadn’t have applied more pressure, we wouldn’t have gotten that attention.” 

An offramp? 

Stuart’s bill passed the Senate Friday, but with a key change: amendments introduced by McClellan would allow Richmond to receive an extension on its deadlines if the city hasn’t received sufficient state or federal funding to cover the costs without having an adverse impact on ratepayers, particularly those defined as economically disadvantaged. 

McClellan described the amendment as “essentially an offramp for the new timeline” if help wasn’t forthcoming. 

Stuart said he found the change “objectionable,” because “it takes the pressure off and they can just keep kicking the can down the road again.” Still, he urged the Senate to pass the bill, and on Friday it cleared the chamber on a 36-4 vote, with Sens. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, Ghazala Hashmi, D-Chesterfield, and Mamie Locke, D-Hampton opposing. 

The bill will now head to the House of Delegates for consideration and may face further changes: during a Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee meeting this week, Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, said he had “a feeling we’re going to be negotiating this out in conference.” 

As the legislature continues its debate, Steidel said the city is continuing its work. Later this year, Richmond’s wastewater treatment plant capacity is scheduled 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 get it done,” said Steidel. “We just need to have money, time and people.” 

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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.