Stopping Alexandria Sewage Overflow Campaign

infograph-swimguideLike Washington D.C., the historic downtown section of Alexandria uses a combined sewer system that dumps untreated sewage and stormwater into Hunting Creek and the Potomac River nearly every time it rains, resulting in millions of gallons of sewage containing E.coli and other pathogens flowing into our waterways every year. Under a new Clean Water Act permit issued by Virginia, Alexandria must develop a plan to reduce the sewage pollution by 2016. The city begun a public outreach campaign as it develops a list of potential approaches to reduce sewage overflows, including building storage tunnels, using green infrastructure such as green roofs, and separating the sewage and stormwater pipes. Beginning in 2015, we actively engaged with the city to make sure that its long term plan to reduce these toxic overflows will lead to real improvements in water quality in the future. Our goal is to return the Potomac River to the “fishable, swimmable” waterway envisioned and required by the Clean Water Act.

The city developed a Long Term Control Plan (LTCP) to deal with combined sewer and stormwater overflows at outfalls 002, 003, 004 discharging into Hunting Creek. Developing a solution for outfall 001 that discharges directly into Oronoco Bay was delayed to future years. Outfall 001 discharges roughly half of Alexandria’s sewage laden stormwater into the Potomac River – approximately 70 million gallons a year – where people paddle, wade fish and frequently recreate. In the fall of 2016, we conducted outreach to the community, encouraged community engagement to urge the city to act on outfall 001, and supported legislation that would expedite Alexandria’s plan for outfall 001.

At the end of 2016, PRKN submitted formal comments to Virginia’s DEQ regarding the City of Alexandria’s effort to address untreated sewage pollution emanating from its antiquated “Combined Sewer System” into the Potomac River and nearby tributaries. PRKN is calling on Virginia DEQ to hold a public hearing and invite formal public comment on Alexandria’s illegal and inadequate plan, which fails to address a discharge point near Old Town which dumps about 70 million gallons of raw sewage and polluted stormwater into the river each year. PRKN’s review of water quality testing done by Alexandria in Oronoco Bay, the location of this dumping into the Potomac, reveals that 51% of the Citys samples showed fecal bacteria at unsafe levels in the river, rendering the Potomac frequently unsafe for human contact.

Background on Alexandria's Long Term Control Plan & Outfall 001
The Clean Water Act requires cities operating combined sewer systems to develop a “Long Term Control Plan” for reducing untreated sewage discharges that violate water quality standards. The goal of the Plan is to implement additional treatment and storage of mixed stormwater and sewage that will lead to compliance with water quality standards. Cities like Alexandria typically have 20 years to implement the plan once it is approved by EPA. In other words, the city has 20 years to reduce sewage discharges to the point where they no longer cause exceedances of bacteria standards that are in place to protect public health when people are swimming or kayaking in a waterway (also known as “primary contact recreation.”)

In Virginia, the state has designated all waters in the state as suitable for fishing, swimming, or boating, and set enforceable water quality standards (regulations) that dictate how much bacteria can be present in a waterbody before it becomes unsafe for recreation and swimming. Oronoco Bay, the receiving water into which Outfall 001 discharges, is Virginia state water, and is considered freshwater in this context.

Those standards are found here:

  • E.coli is used in Virginia’s standards as the indicator of bacterial pollution.
  • Normally permits require compliance with a certain level of e.coli, measured by a 30 day geometric mean (average), based on 4 or 5 samples during the 30 day period.
  • However, since Alexandria is only required to sample Outfall 001 on a quarterly basis, every four years, then the following standard applies: “If there are insufficient data to calculate monthly geometric means in freshwater, no more than 10% of the total samples in the assessment period shall exceed 235 E. coli CFU/100 ml.”

Alexandria’s combined sewer system has been operating under a 1999 Long Term Control Plan approved by EPA that only required the city to comply with the minimum “best management practices” for reducing CSOs. It appears the city proposed to EPA that this would lead to compliance with water quality standards, which all Control Plans have to achieve by law.

Outfall 001 on Oronoco Bay

In 2010, EPA and Virginia imposed new pollution limits for bacteria on Hunting Creek, a tributary of the Potomac into which Outfalls 002, 003 and 004 discharge. This resulted in a requirement that Alexandria update its Control Plan to reduce untreated sewage discharges from Hunting Creek to meet the much lower limits, but the update does not apply to Outfall 001, because it’s not in Hunting Creek.

As a result, Outfall 001 is still subject to the 1999 Control Plan, which still requires Alexandria to meet water quality standards. Outfall 001 accounts for approximately a third to a half of the entire volume of untreated sewage discharged by Alexandria into the Potomac and Hunting Creek, approximately 70 million gallons a year.

There is very little recent monitoring data for Outfall 001’s discharge into Oronoco Bay, because Alexandria’s permit only requires quarterly monitoring from one of the four outfalls each year. Outfall 001 was last monitored in 2014, and will be again in 2018. See the city’s annual report on it’s combined sewer system for 2014 report. Appendix A in the report has quarterly sampling data that shows e.coli counts much higher than the 235 standard.

Older water quality monitoring data for Oronoco Bay, collected by Alexandria under their previous 2007-2012 permit show results of weekly sampling at four locations in the Bay (as opposed to the quarterly sampling in 2014, which was done at Outfall 001). This data shows frequent violations of the 235/100 ml e.coli standard, during both CSO events and ‘routine’ operations, which we assume to mean dry weather.

Under the current 2013-2018 permit, DEQ removed the water quality monitoring requirement for Oronoco Bay, so we only have ambient water quality data for 2007-2012. Given the fact that nothing has changed in the city’s sewer system, it’s likely that water quality in Oronoco Bay continues to be severely impacted by raw sewage, rendering it unsafe for swimming or boating.

The law requires, that Alexandria address the discharges from Outfall 001 in its current update to the Long Term Control Plan. As it stands, based on the data we have, Outfall 001’s raw sewage discharges are violating state water quality standards for Oronoco Bay, and thus violating the terms of the 1999 Long Term Control Plan, which requires compliance with water quality standards.

It makes no sense to us for Alexandria to ignore this pollution, particularly given its high volume and the fact that it’s discharging into Oronoco Bay, a part of the Potomac that’s frequently used for recreation, including high school rowing teams’ practice. In order to protect public health and comply with federal and state environmental laws, Alexandria needs to include Outfall 001 in its plan to reduce sewage discharges from the city’s sewer system.

Factsheet: Alexandria Sewage Pollution: Facts vs. City Spin
Potomac Riverkeeper Network is providing the following facts to help the public distinguish the truth from the misinformation being spread by Alexandria’s elected leaders and city staff.

The City says the Long Term Control Plan (LTCP) being revised has nothing to do with Outfall 001.

FACT: All of the city’s discharges of untreated sewage (“CSO”) must comply with the City’s original 1999 LTCP, the City’s CSS Permit, and most importantly the Clean Water Act and EPA’s CSO Control Policy.

  • The 1999 LTCP covers all 4 of the city’s Outfalls, and requires the City to make sure that sewage discharges do not violate state water quality standards designed to protect public health for people recreating in state waters.
  • The current “Long Term Control Plan Update” is simply a revision of the 1999 Plan. It is not a new plan, and does not release the city from its obligation to deal with the 70 million gallons of untreated sewage and stormwater that are dumped into the Potomac annually from Outfall 001.
  • Virginia regulators (“DEQ”) have the authority to reopen and modify the City’s CSSP permit at any time to require reductions of sewage discharges from Outfall 001.

The City says “At this point, there is no regulatory requirement to require us to do anything different with Outfall 001.”

FACT: The City’s obligation to address sewage dumping from Outfall 001 has been in force since 1995, when EPA established specific legal requirements for reducing sewage pollution from antiquated CSO systems in the agency’s Combined Sewer Overflows Guidance for Long Term Control Plan

  • In 1999, Virginia DEQ accepted the City’s proposal to do the absolute minimum upgrade to its sewer system, relying on the City’s claim that its sewage dumping would not violate state water quality standards.
  • Virginia DEQ and the City were forced to address sewage pollution from Outfalls 002-004 into Hunting Creek and other Potomac tributaries after these waterways were found to be “impaired” from sewage pollution in the mid – 2000s by the state of Virginia.
  • Virginia DEQ never assessed whether Oronoco Bay was impaired by sewage dumping from Outfall 001 – they only required the City to conduct water quality sampling in the Bay from 2007-2011.
  • The City’s water quality sampling in Oronoco Bay clearly shows frequent, repeated violations of state water quality standards for sewage bacteria during that 5 year period, meaning Oronoco Bay is frequently unsafe for swimming and boating.
    • Yet DEQ allowed the City to stop sampling and failed to require any further steps by the City to fix this problem.
  • The City’s current CSS Permit only requires sampling of one of the four Outfalls per year. Outfall 001 was last sampled in 2014, and won’t be again until 2018.
  • The City has no plans to even look at options for fixing Outfall 001 until 2032.

In its LTCP Update, the City says it will use sewer separation and green infrastructure, and rely on waterfront development to “manage” Outfall 001 discharges.

“…the City is also including a phased approach in the LTCPU to further reduce overflows at CSO-001 through targeted sewer separation and green infrastructure.” [Alexandria draft Long Term Control Plan Update, LTCPU Report, August 2016}

FACT: The city has conducted an exhaustive analysis (CSS Long Term Control Plan Update, CSO-001 Strategies, Final – October 2015) of how green infrastructure could reduce stormwater runoff and the volume of sewage dumping from Outfall 001, which concluded that in the best case scenario, green infrastructure measures would only reduce sewage pollution by 6%.

  • City staff say that under the best case scenario, future separation projects will reduce the sewage dumping volume by less than 10%.
  • There is nothing binding about this statement, or any of the City’s statements about 001 in the LTCPU Report. They make no commitments to reducing any discharges from 001, by even a single gallon – making it perfectly legal for future permits to likewise omit any reductions in outfall 001 discharges.

The City’s Bottom Line – “the “100% fix” for 001 is probably behind 002, 003 and 004 in the planning, but we’re still working to address. “ [Justin Wilson, Vice Mayor, 10/26/16}

FACT: The LTCP Update submitted to Virginia DEQ by the City reveals the City’s actual plans, and its complete failure to fix decades of sewage dumping from Outfall 001 into the Potomac River.

  • City officials are content to continue dumping 70 million gallons of untreated sewage into Oronoco Bay and the Potomac River for at least another 20 years, with no concrete plans to stop its fouling of the Potomac with human waste.
  • City officials are ok with allowing the TC William High School Crew team to practice in sewage infested waters. The team boathouse is on Oronoco Bay, in plain sight of Outfall 001.
  • City officials are willing to do nothing until Virginia state regulators tell them otherwise, despite years of water sampling data, collected by the City, that shows that Alexandria sewage pollution has violated state law and degraded water quality in Oronoco Bay.
Latest Updates
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