Commentary: Alexandria CSO Deadline Unresolved

Commentary: Alexandria CSO Deadline Unresolved

Prior to the General Assembly’s April 5 one-day reconvened “veto” session, Gov. Terry McAuliffe proposed sensible amendments to legislation providing accelerated deadlines for the City of Alexandria to address its longstanding Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) issues. As most readers of this publication know, CSO is the result of single pipe sewer systems that discharge combined stormwater and wastewater into waterways when it rains. Like more than 800 other historic cities including Richmond, Lynchburg, and D.C., Alexandria must address the environmental impact of these discharges.

This problem represents a significant water quality hazard that must be addressed in an urgent manner. In past meetings with city officials and staff, I have expressed my disappointment with the lack of progress on this issue. While we can agree that Alexandria should have taken action sooner, as a legislator who represents the communities most directly affected by this issue, I have been committed to seeking the most aggressive yet actionable solution.

It’s been a messy and unfortunate process that I had hoped would end with a firm deadline signed into law at the closing of this year’s legislative session. This became an impossibility when some legislators insisted on an arbitrary deadline that could not be met. According to two separate engineering assessments from independent firms who have been directly involved in extensive CSO work in other cities, including Washington, D.C. and Boston, the earliest Alexandria could complete the four necessary and separate massive remediation projects would be 2027.

It’s no easy task--Richmond and Lynchburg have been working on this issue for more than 30 years and still have a way to go. And, even after Lynchburg has “fixed” its problem, it will still emit 68 millions of gallons of CSO effluent annually. D.C., after spending $2.6 billion to address its CSO issues will emit more than Alexandria does today.

With my encouragement, the Governor’s office agreed to forego passage of amendments regarding construction start dates, and more aggressive enforcement of wastewater violations throughout the Commonwealth if the General Assembly were only to set an attainable deadline of 2027. The sponsor of the bill’s House version, Del. Scott Lingamfelter (R-Prince William), concurred and the House of Delegates agreed on a 100-0 vote.

Unfortunately, the Senate sponsors rejected the only viable option to set a practicable hard deadline this legislative session. Senators Richard Stuart (R-Spotsylvania) and Scott Surovell (D-Mount Vernon) were unwilling to change their position from the arbitrary 2025 deadline that the House, the governor, the state Department of Environmental Quality, Alexandria and several pro-environment legislators deemed unworkable. This led to the rejection of the governor’s amendments and may result in a veto.

Leading environmental organizations, including the Virginia Chapter of the League of Conservation Voters, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and the Sierra Club, have been staunch advocates for addressing pollution caused by CSOs with a firm completion deadline throughout the process. In March, the Mount Vernon chapter of the Sierra Club called for a deadline “consistent with good planning and engineering practices.”

These same organizations did not take a position on the Governor’s proposal to extend the bill’s deadline for addressing Outfall #1 by two years. Perhaps they realized that 2027 was a sensible deadline.

In the event of a veto, this issue will certainly not be going away and I am personally committed to introducing legislation that would establish a 2027 deadline.

Alexandria, for its part, is likely to phase in a 500 percent increase in sewer rates to finance these four massive public works projects that may end up costing as much as $400 million dollars. The projects will likely require construction of multiple 2-4 million gallon storage tanks, removal of tens of thousands of truckloads of dirt from potentially-contaminated sites, and a year of pile driving alone.

CSO discharges are just part of the equation. While the thought of raw sewage going into the Potomac and its tributaries is the most revolting, the vast majority of bacteria in our waterways comes from billions of gallons of urban stormwater runoff, billions of gallons of agricultural runoff and wildlife excrement and carcasses. As we push for proper wastewater management we must also aggressively advocate for creative approaches to stormwater runoff — promoting green solutions such as bioretention and increased permeable surfaces. Because stormwater comprises the majority of the discharge from CSO systems, this holistic strategy would both reduce Combined Sewer Overflows and also limit the amount of stormwater that flows directly to the Potomac.

We must comprehensively mitigate all major sources of bacterial pollution with sound and sustainable environmental policy. The health of the Chesapeake depends on it.

It is my continued honor to serve the people of the 30th District.

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