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Henrico County, environmental groups reach settlement over sewage overflows

Henrico County and environmental groups involved in a lawsuit over pollution from a local sewage treatment facility reached a settlement requiring the county to notify the public of overflows, ramp up system improvements and invest $1 million in environmental work.

Virginia Mercury

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By Charlie Paullin

Henrico County and environmental groups involved in a lawsuit over pollution from a local sewage treatment facility reached a settlement requiring the county to notify the public of overflows, ramp up system improvements and invest $1 million in environmental work.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and James River Association, represented by in-house attorneys and the Environmental Integrity Project, respectively, announced the settlement agreement Tuesday following the dismissal of the lawsuit, which was filed in December 2021.

Peggy Sanner, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Virginia executive director, called the settlement a “big win,” saying it will give Henrico County residents “better access to timely information on sewage overflows, and many other measures that will protect residents and the James River for years to come.”

Henrico County Director of Public Utilities Bentley Chan said the county is pleased with the dismissal of the lawsuit and pointed to ongoing work to improve the plant, known as the Henrico County Water Reclamation Facility.

“Henrico County continues to be deeply committed to protecting the health of its residents and visitors,” Chan said in an email. “The County continues to be in compliance with our DEQ Permit and is proactively renewing our existing infrastructure and facilities to make them more reliable, resilient, and sustainable with a 10-year, $1.3 billion capital improvement program.”

The environmental groups had accused Henrico County of failing to fix problems with its sewage collection system and treatment plant, resulting in the dumping of more than 66 million gallons of raw sewage into the James River and its tributaries since 2016.

The lawsuit stated the facility had 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.

Since the Henrico County Water Reclamation Facility began operating in November 1989, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality has issued dozens of violation notices to the county related to its treatment plant and sewage collection system.

DEQ has also issued several consent orders, enforcement mechanisms used by the agency to force violators to fix environmental problems and sometimes pay penalties. In total, DEQ assessed Henrico $53,000 in penalties related to its sewage treatment between 1993 and 2010.

A more recent consent order came with a penalty of $207,680.

Judge David Novak in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia dismissed the case with the settlement and a modification to the last consent order that recognizes the settlement, which includes an as-yet undetermined $1 million environmental project investment.

Henrico officials said they are discussing ideas for the environmental project with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and James River Association. The settlement gives them until July 1 to determine a project and until July 1, 2029, to complete it unless an extension is agreed to.

Furthermore, the settlement requires Henrico to notify the public of any sewage overflows on a web-based map that is updated daily, as well as through public outreach practices like door hangers and bill inserts.

It also requires the county to speed up construction of new filters at the facility, increase sewer inspections, begin a sewer cleaning program, consider a program to address sewage overflows that begin on private property and take into account the effect of heavier rainfall due to climate change on its system.

Chan pointed to work Henrico has already done at the facility in response to climate change.

“Climate change is real,” Chan said. “We’re seeing more frequent storms, longer duration.”

While the region received 63.8 inches of rainfall from storms Alberto, Florence and Michael in 2018 and 63.5 inches of rainfall from Hurricanes Isaias and Zeta in 2020, overflows decreased from 49 million gallons to 4.7 million gallons during that same time, he said.

The Henrico facility accepts residential, commercial and industrial waste from over 250,000 users in Henrico and Hanover, Richmond and Goochland.

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