Environmental groups sue Henrico County over raw sewage in James River

Henrico County

HENRICO, Va. (WRIC) — Henrico County is facing a lawsuit from three environmental organizations who allege the county has repeatedly violated the federal Clean Water Act. The groups said that in the last five years alone, Henrico has dumped over 66 million gallons of raw sewage into the James River.

The suit centers on the Henrico Water Reclamation Facility, a water treatment plant located on the James River at the eastern end of the county. According to the plaintiffs, so-called ‘sanitary sewage overflows’ or SSO’s have regularly occurred at the facility, posing a significant health risk to surrounding communities and negatively impacting the environment.

“These releases of sewage occur due to critical failures within inadequate or crumbling sewer infrastructure across Henrico County,” said Jamie Brunkow, James Riverkeeper and Senior Advocacy Manager with the James River Association.

The James River Association, along with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Environmental Integrity Project, decided to file the suit because they believe an agreement announced between the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (VDEQ) and Henrico County will be inadequate to address the issue.

Sewage Through the Years

According to the plaintiffs, the problem in Henrico County isn’t a recent development – it goes back to at least 1989, when the Water Reclamation Facility first opened.

“Henrico and [the Department of Environmental Quality] have entered into four consent orders since 1993 to address clean water violations in Henrico,” said Sylvia Lam, an attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project.

A consent order is an administrative agreement that the county would take certain steps to alleviate violations of the Clean Water Act. Over 30 years after the plant opened and four consent orders later, the county continues to discharge sewage into local waterways.

You can view a full timeline of the county’s actions below:

The groups believe part of the problem has been an unfocused approach to the county’s inadequate sewage system.

“Taking a piecemeal approach for 30-odd years hasn’t gotten us anywhere,” said Taylor Lilley, an attorney with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. The plaintiffs hope this lawsuit will be a catalyst to spur the county to action.

Water Hazards

According to the plaintiffs, the SSOs represent a serious threat to the health and safety of anyone who lives near the county’s waterways or uses them recreationally.

“Henrico has jeopardized the health of the James River and its tributaries, and posed significant health risks to surrounding communities,” said Lilley. “It also presents environmental justice concerns: several of these [sewage overflows] are occurring in low-income communities and communities of color.”

This video shows an SSO event in Henrico County. (Video courtesy of the James River Association)

That could end up costing the county – according to the complaint, the county could be subject to fines of “up to $56,460 for each day of violation” under the Clean Water Act.

In a statement responding to the suit, the county said, “Henrico County is dedicated to protecting the health of the public and is deeply committed to environmental stewardship in Central Virginia and the Chesapeake Bay. The county is reviewing this lawsuit and looks forward to a full presentation of the facts through the legal process.”

As for what the plaintiffs are seeking, Lilley said it’s too early in the process to say exactly what outcome they’re seeking, but Lam added that whatever happens, “I think we can all agree that we want them to assess and come up with a comprehensive plan that they’re required to follow and to stop these overflows.”

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