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Push to accelerate Richmond combined sewer fix halted in House

Legislation that would have accelerated a state-imposed timeline for Richmond to finish separating its stormwater and sewer systems by five years has died after a House panel halted its progress Monday night. 

Virginia Mercury

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Legislation that would have accelerated a state-imposed timeline for Richmond to finish separating its stormwater and sewer systems by five years has died after a House panel halted its progress Monday night. 

The proposal from Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Stafford, Senate Bill 354 is “dead,” Stuart’s office confirmed Wednesday. 

The bill, which would have moved up Richmond’s deadline for fixing its combined sewer overflow system from 2035 to 2030, had passed the Senate on a 36-4 vote last month, despite objections from the city that it lacked sufficient time and money to complete the mammoth project in eight years. 

“It’s a high priority for the city to make sure this happens,” Richmond Deputy Chief Administrator Bob Steidel told the House Chesapeake Subcommittee Monday. “But it’s going to take time, and I just can’t stretch time. I don’t have enough money yet.” 

The subcommittee voted 5-4 against moving the bill on to full committee, a necessary step before the full House could consider it. Two delegates — Del. Tony Wilt, R-Rockingham, and Del. Margaret Ransone, R-Westmoreland — were absent at the time of the vote. 

Del. Rob Bloxom, R-Accomack, joined with Democrats on the panel to reject the legislation, saying, “I don’t like sending a bill that I think is impossible to do.” 

While the House Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee could have revived the legislation Wednesday, Chair Lee Ware, R-Powhatan, did not put it back on the agenda. 

A $1.3 billion lift

Stuart has become a leading voice in Richmond in support of pushing for faster fixes to Virginia’s three remaining combined sewer overflow systems, a 19th-century form of infrastructure where both storm runoff and sewage flow through the same pipes. 

In dry weather, combined sewer systems function as effectively as other systems. But during heavy precipitation, they can become overwhelmed and cause overflows of sewage into waterways. 

In Richmond, where the combined sewer system covers 19 square miles of the city, much of it containing densely packed century-old buildings, the problem has been particularly acute. Last year, almost 2 billion gallons of combined stormwater and sewage overflowed into the James River. 

Stuart has pointed to that number as the primary motivator for his effort to speed up the city’s 2035 deadline, which was put in place after extensive negotiations during the 2020 General Assembly session. The senator previously fought to accelerate Alexandria’s combined sewer deadline to 2025, a success he’s said he’s trying to replicate in Richmond.

“I’m not trying to beat up on the city of Richmond. I’m not trying to make their life difficult,” Stuart told the House Chesapeake Subcommittee Monday. “But in the year 2022, we’re not a third-world country. … I think the way we help the city of Richmond is we continue to apply pressure to get this done.” 

City officials, however, have emphasized that the challenges confronting Richmond far outstrip those faced by Alexandria and Lynchburg, the third of the state’s cities grappling with combined sewers. Alexandria’s four remaining sewage outfalls are dwarfed by Richmond’s 25, for example, and while Alexandria is working to build one massive tunnel under the Potomac to handle overflows, Richmond anticipates needing to build five. 

“If you think about what we have to build, you think about an Olympic swimming pool. We need about 760 of those,” said April Bingham, Richmond’s director of public utilities. 

The city has estimated the remaining work will cost $1.3 billion; of that, the state has promised $150 million in funding, which Richmond will match. 

“That’s the end of our debt capacity. We’re done,” said Steidel. 

Without additional funding, the city has estimated ratepayers could see bills triple, from roughly $64 to $185 per month. Officials also noted that about a quarter of Richmond residents live below the poverty line, a rate that Steidel said is “probably closer to 35 percent for those that are just on the edge of being able to have a sustainable wage.” 

Stuart acknowledged the poverty rate but said a solution was still necessary. 

“We can’t continue to not fix this problem because there are folks that it may impact unreasonably,” he said. “I would rather pursue a course to help those folks that maybe can’t afford to pay it than continue to kick this can down the road.” 

Del. David Bulova, D-Fairfax, said he understood the need for pressure but was “concerned about trying to go ahead and push this too far and too fast and what that ultimately does to the city’s financing.” 

I think we’ve effectively applied pressure on Richmond to do it as quickly as possible,” he said.

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