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Henrico settles pollution lawsuit, commits $1M to improvements

Sign next to river: Deep Bottom Boat Ramp County of Henrico Division of Recreation
Crixell Matthews
VPM News File
Deep Bottom Park is located just downstream of the Henrico Water Reclamation Facility, one of the county’s main sources of sewage pollution.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, James River Association and the Environmental Integrity Project originally sued in late 2021.

Henrico County is required to complete a $1 million environmental improvement project by 2029. The requirement comes from settlement of a federal lawsuit with environmental groups over decades of pollution violations stemming from the county’s wastewater collection system and Henrico Water Reclamation Facility.

At the time of the suit’s filing in December 2021, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, James River Association and the Environmental Integrity Project were concerned that the county was entering into another consent order with the state Department of Environmental Quality.

Previous consent-order projects had not been completed on schedule or had failed to address leaks from an aging system. In the lawsuit, the groups referenced state data that indicated 66 million gallons of sewage flowed into the James River between 2016 and 2021.

Leaked sewage releases a range of pollutants into the environment: Nutrients like nitrogen cause algal blooms that can choke wildlife; sediment blocks the sun before it reaches plants at the bottom of the river; and sewage bacteria gets into wildlife that people eat, and can make swimming, fishing or other river-based activities unhealthy.

Bill Street, president and CEO of JRA, said localities all along the James have leaky sewer systems. But big projects — like updating the combined sewer systems in Richmond, Lynchburg and Alexandria — have required completion dates set by the General Assembly.

“We wanted to break that cycle and make sure that the county was doing additional work to really more quickly identify where problems occur, and also plan for the future, knowing that we’re seeing increased rain due to climate change,” Street said.

As part of the settlement, DEQ amended the 2021 consent order to adjust timelines and requirements on some projects. It also created some entirely new ones — like a daily-updated website with a map of sewage overflows in the county, due to come online this summer.

“The agreement ensures that the public will have much better information about the sewage overflows from the system, as well as the pollution violations,” said EIP attorney Sarah Kula.

Kula said the amendments to the 2021 consent order require the county to accelerate construction of new filters at the treatment plant, update its sewer cleaning and monitoring programs, and plan ahead for heavier rainfall in years to come.

She acknowledged that Henrico has been working on many of those projects and said the order provides some additional requirements.

“CBF, JRA and EIP saw this existing consent order ... as falling short of what it needs to include to hold the county accountable to making improvements,” Kula said.

Bentley Chan, Henrico County’s director of public utilities, told VPM News that the county was pleased with the suit’s outcome and that Henrico had been in attainment with pollution standards since April 2021.

“I do feel that a very productive and beneficial outcome became of it,” Chan said.

Chan said most sewage overflows referenced in the suit — an estimated 49.2 million gallons — occurred during 2018, the state’s wettest year on record. He compared that to roughly 4.7 million gallons in 2020, the state’s third-wettest year, citing the implementation of flow equalization basins to slow down wastewater on its way to the treatment plant.

“So, a tenfold reduction based on things we are putting in place,” Chan said.

He also pointed to $64 million in funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, which Henrico has pledged to removing private well and septic systems.

“Because they’re privately maintained, they’re not always the best maintained,” Chan said, “and so you get a lot of pollution from that wastewater.”

As for finding the cash to make those improvements, Chan said Henrico residents shouldn’t be worried about their utility bills spiking.

“Our budget is not based entirely on ratepayer funding. I mean, we have bond funding, grant funding, partnerships with other departments,” Chan said. “So, you’re looking at a multi-pronged, very dynamic strategy to fund all of these projects.”

Chan said the county’s $1.3 billion capital improvement plan includes more than $200 million of the necessary funding for the facility and wastewater collection projects.

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.