‘Mean spirited’ Alexandria sewer bill sparks partisan fight

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — One of Virginia’s wealthiest cities has an unpleasant problem: part of the sewer system in Alexandria gets overwhelmed during almost any type of wet weather, sending untreated waste into nearby waterways and on to the Potomac River scores of times each year.

The Washington suburb has plenty of company. The EPA estimates nearly 860 cities nationwide, including Richmond and Lynchburg in Virginia, have the same problem.

But some lawmakers felt the liberal community that touts an “eco-city” status wasn’t moving quickly enough to fix the issue, an environmental hazard that fouls water quality, increases the risk of bacteria-borne illnesses and leads to nutrient overgrowth. So they passed a bill requiring a fix by 2025.

That measure, now pending before Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe, led to an outcry from Alexandria, which says the deadline is impossible to meet. It also highlighted a divide often on display at the statehouse: the one between northern Virginia lawmakers and everyone else.

The bill’s sponsor says it’s a straightforward issue.

“Alexandria is one of the richest jurisdictions in the state of Virginia,” said Sen. Richard Stuart, whose district covers communities along the Potomac downstream. “They can have anything else they want, but they don’t seem to want to make this a priority, and my goal is to make them make this a priority and get something done about it.”

Part of Alexandria is served by what’s called a combined sewer system, in which one pipe conveys both sewage and stormwater to a wastewater treatment plant. When it rains or snow melts, the system often can’t handle the volume.

That happens about 50 to 70 times a year, sending some 122 million gallons of sewage, stormwater and wastewater annually into waterways at four permitted overflow spots, said Yon Lambert, director of transportation and environmental services for the city.

Alexandria has been working on the issue since at least the 1990s and has a long-term control plan in place that’s overseen by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. The plan, however, focuses on only three overflows but not the fourth, which accounts for about half the city’s annual overflow, according to Lambert.

The unregulated overflow dumps out into Oronoco Bay, right along the city’s waterfront.

In the summer, especially, it’s “just disgusting,” said Dean Naujoks, an environmentalist with the Potomac Riverkeeper Network who has tracked the issue closely and questioned the city’s timeline.

Before the bill was introduced, Alexandria proposed an assessment of the Oronoco outfall in 2026 and expected work to bring all four outfalls into compliance by 2035, Lambert said.

Stuart called that “absolutely absurd,” but the city has balked at the 2025 deadline in his bill. Earlier versions of the measure were even more stringent — one included a 2020 deadline and the threat of state funding being withheld were it not met.

“These are extremely large infrastructure projects,” said Lambert, who emphasized that Alexandria has always been in compliance with federal and state laws and regulations. The earliest the city thinks it can address the Oronoco outfall is by 2028, and that would be under an “extremely aggressive” schedule, he said.

Five Democratic lawmakers who represent the area and were among the 30 or so members of their party who voted against the bill recently met with city council members and urged them to reach out to the governor and his chief of staff to request that the bill be amended.

Del. Mark Levine said it was all just a political effort to “tar Alexandria.”

One councilwoman called the bill “mean spirited and hateful.”

But Naujoks said he was astounded that dozens of Democrats voted against “a clean water bill” that their Republican colleagues supported.

“The idea that a municipality in this day and age could be allowed to dump millions of gallons of raw sewage is just crazy,” Naujoks said.

Stuart’s bill is under review and the governor hasn’t taken a position yet, said McAuliffe’s spokesman, Brian Coy.