Three environmental organizations filed a federal lawsuit today to halt decades of water pollution violations by Henrico County’s sewage treatment plant and sewage collection system, including the release of more than 66 million gallons of raw sewage into the James River in the last five years alone. This creates a public health hazard for the many people who fish, swim, paddle, and enjoy time along the James River and its tributary streams.
This legal action taken by the James River Association, the Environmental Integrity Project, and Chesapeake Bay Foundation in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia seeks to require the county, a suburb of Richmond, to fix its failing sewage system and protect public health and the Chesapeake Bay.
Taylor Lilley, Chesapeake Bay Foundation Environmental Justice Staff Attorney, said: “More than 30 years of ongoing pollution violations are simply unacceptable. We must hold Henrico County accountable for endangering the health and quality of life of everyone who spends time on the James River,” said Taylor Lilley, Chesapeake Bay Foundation Environmental Justice Staff Attorney. “These sewer overflows happen with no public notice, and many occur in environmental justice communities. This threat has left people vulnerable for decades.”
Jamie Brunkow, James Riverkeeper and Senior Advocacy Manager with the James River Association, said: “Action is needed to protect our streams, our river, and public health from the serious pollution violations in Henrico County. Local communities deserve waterways that are safe for swimming and fishing, but for at least 30 years Henrico County has allowed sewage and bacteria to plague local streams. We need a forward-looking solution in place that fully protects the health of the public and the James River.”
The 32-year-old Henrico County Water Reclamation Facility, located about five miles southeast of Richmond, and its connected sewer pipe system have been subject to at least 40 violation notices and four different state consent orders. But none of the state consent orders – including a new one, proposed in August – has included meaningful solutions to solve the chronic pollution overflows that are fouling the historic James River.
The Henrico sewage plant has violated permitted limits for suspended solids at least 10 times over the last three years, according to state records. So far this year, from January 1 through October 7, the county’s sewage system discharged of 1.2 million gallons of raw, untreated sewage into the James and its tributaries. This failing infrastructure pollutes streams and creeks across Henrico County, from the West End to Eastern Henrico.
“Decades of consent decrees have failed to require Henrico County to make meaningful progress in halting these chronic pollution overflows,” said Sylvia Lam, Attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP). “Because Henrico County has not fixed this problem to protect the public, we had no alternative but to take legal action.”
The Henrico County Water Reclamation Facility receives sewage for treatment from Henrico County (population of 332,538), as well as portions of the City of Richmond, Hanover County, Goochland County, and about 20 industrial plants.
Because of the Henrico sewage system’s chronic violations, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (VDEQ) has subjected the county to four separate consent orders and imposed $55,000 in fines over the last three decades. But each time Henrico County has failed to develop effective pollution controls to overcome the structural and operational inadequacies of the sewage plant and the lines that feed into it.
In fact, since 2016, Henrico’s system has released more than 66 million gallons of raw sewage into the James River and its tributaries. This included the release of 9.3 million gallons of sewage in 2016, 49 million gallons in 2018, 1.3 million gallons in 2019, and 4.7 million gallons in 2020.
For maps created by the Environmental Integrity Project showing the locations of the sewage overflows and their relationships to neighborhoods of color and lower-income communities in the Richmond area, click here for locations, here for demographics and here for income.
Beth Kreydatus lives in Henrico County, where she and her children frequently hike and participate in trash cleanups along Upham Brook in Bryan Park. The family was alarmed to learn of sewage pollution, and they now worry about the health risks posed by contact with the water. Recently, Kreydatus noticed the smell of sewage and she no longer allows her children to fish in Upham Brook. “A 21st century community shouldn’t be experiencing these issues,” Kreydatus said.
The lawsuit seeks to require Henrico to commit to long-term solutions to the water pollution violations and protect the James River. Henrico County must finally perform a comprehensive overhaul of its systems and operations to prevent ongoing pollution violations and sewage overflows, as well as commit to notifying residents of sewage overflows.
HISTORY OF THE PROBLEM:
The following is a history of the chronic water pollution violations at the Henrico Water Reclamation Facility and its connected sewer lines, and the state’s ineffective efforts to control the problems.
- The wastewater plant, located at 9101 WRVA Road, in Henrico, opened in November 1989. Between then and January 8, 1993, VDEQ issued 23 water pollution violation notices to the plant. These led to a voluntary consent decree on June 1, 1993, but that agreement did not include penalties for future failures to comply.
- Between February 5, 1993, and August 4, 1994, Virginia issued 13 additional violation notices to the plant, which led to an amendment to the voluntary consent decree. But this amended consent decree also did not fix the ongoing problems.
- On February 19, 1998, Virginia issued a new consent order to Henrico County in an effort to halt sewage overflows. That order required the county to rehabilitate nine sewer collection subsystems, but the county failed to meet the deadlines for the projects. Accordingly, the state issued another violation notice on November 23, 1999.
- On November 2, 2001, Virginia issued another violation notice to Henrico County for violations of permit limits on suspended solids and other pollutants during the period of March through August, 2001.
- On April 16, 2002, the state issued an additional violation notice to the plant for 19 more sewage overflows, as well as violations of permit limits on ammonia, total phosphorus and suspended solids over the previous seven months.
- On January 7, 2003, VDEQ and Henrico County entered into another consent order – accompanied by a $25,500 fine – meant to address ongoing sewage overflows, as well as violations of limits on nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, suspended solids and chlorine.
- Because the pollution violations continued – with at least 76 additional sewage overflows -- and Henrico County failed to complete required projects to fix the problem, on September 27, 2007 and then December 17, 2010, Virginia entered into two more consent orders with the county. The 2010 consent order came with a $29,500 penalty for violations.
- Henrico completed all the projects listed in the 2010 consent order by April 2018. But the work failed to curb the frequent and recurring sewage overflows, which have totaled at least 66 million gallons total since 2016.
- Between 2018 and 2020, Virginia issued Henrico County seven more violation notices for water pollution exceedances, including for more than 100 sewage overflow incidents.
- On August 25, 2021, VDEQ and Henrico signed a new proposed consent order that includes $207,680 in proposed administrative penalties. This order has not yet been finalized. But the state order – like the previous four – does not include long-term projects and systemic improvements that would offer a sustainable solution to Henrico’s chronic sewage overflow problems.
The James River Association is a member-supported nonprofit organization founded in 1976 to serve as a guardian and voice for the James River, continually working toward its vision of a fully healthy James supporting thriving communities.
The Environmental Integrity Project is a 19-year-old nonprofit organization, based in Washington, D.C., dedicated to enforcing environmental laws and strengthening policy to protect public health and the environment.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), founded in 1967, is the largest independent conservation organization dedicated solely to saving the Bay. Serving as a watchdog and advocating for good water quality policies, CBF works for effective, science-based solutions to the pollution degrading the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers and streams.
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