RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Two billion gallons of raw sewage – that was the figure cited by State Senator Richard Stuart (R – Westmoreland) during a hearing by the Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources on Tuesday.
It’s the amount that was released by the City of Richmond into the James River in 2021, during so-called Combined Sewage Overflow (CSO) events.
The city is already committed by state law to resolving the pollution issues by 2035, but SB 354, patroned by Sen. Stuart, would accelerate that timeline, requiring the city to resolve its sewage issues by 2030.
Stuart said while the city has clearly made some progress, the problem of raw sewage in the James, which can sicken residents and negatively impact the health of the bay, has to be addressed as quickly as possible.
“Even last year, by [Richmond’s] own reporting, [the city] dumped 2 billion gallons of raw sewage in the James River,” Stuart told the committee. “In my mind, that’s a public health emergency.”
The root of the problem goes back to the 1800s when Richmond’s current sewage system was designed. At the time, certain portions of the sewer were built as a “combined system” with pipes transporting both wastewater and storm runoff.
Normally, that doesn’t pose an issue since stormwater can be filtered by water treatment facilities the same as sewage. However, during heavy rains, the system is overwhelmed and raw sewage is discharged into the river.
Show Me the Money
In July 2021, the city projected that fixing the problem would cost an estimated $883 million. Last year, Virginia directed American Rescue Plan Act funds to assist in the effort, bringing the total of federal, state and local funds committed to the projects to $350 million.
“What is the total price tag on this?” Senator Barbara Favola (D – Arlington) asked Stuart.
“They’re talking north of a billion dollars,” Stuart said.
“Jesus Christ,” Favola replied.
A few moments later, Robert Steidel, the Director of Richmond Public Utilities, gave the actual estimate: $1.3 billion, more than the entire annual budget for the city.
“We are making as much headway as we can,” Steidel told the committee.
He also noted that without outside funding, the 2030 deadline would be impossible to meet.
Senators also asked Andrew Wheeler, Governor Glenn Youngkin’s controversial pick to head the Department of Natural Resources, whether the new administration would support a bigger commitment of state funds to assist Richmond.
“We would stand with them to help them find additional federal funds,” he told the committee, saying the administration was committed to protecting the Chesapeake Bay and supported the accelerated timeline.
When pressed on how much state funding Youngkin would support to fix the sewage system, Wheeler said, “I can’t give you a dollar figure today.”
What Happens Next?
The proposal drew support from a number of senators, both Democrats and Republicans, including Joe Morrissey, who represents portions of Southside Richmond.
“I’ve got a vested interest, I admit,” Morrissey said. “I’m on the James every weekend with my children.”
The bill ultimately got the committee’s approval by an 11-4 vote, with senators Ghazala Hashmi, Lynwood Lewis, Jennifer Mclellan and Monty Mason voting against.
The bill still has a long way to go before it becomes law. It will need to get the approval of the full Virginia Senate and the House of Delegates, where no member is carrying equivalent legislation.