Henrico to invest $1M as part of river pollution lawsuit settlement

Henrico’s Water Reclamation Facility off Kingsland Road in Varina, shown in 2019. (Henrico County photo)

A nearly two-year legal battle between environmental groups and Henrico County over river pollution at a sewage treatment plant has reached a resolution.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and James River Association announced this week that they’ve settled a lawsuit that accused the county of ongoing violations at its Water Reclamation Facility in Varina. The groups said the violations resulted in decades of untreated sewage spills into the James River and its tributaries, including millions of gallons’ worth of spills since 2016.

The settlement, announced in a joint release with the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project, calls for the the county to invest $1 million in an environmental project that will reduce pollution. It includes commitments from the county to improve the plant and its sewage collection system, as well as how it notifies the public of sewage spills.

The settlement resulted in the lawsuit’s dismissal Tuesday in U.S. District Court.

Specific steps of the county’s environmental project include use of a web-based map updated daily to show locations of sewage spills, construction of new filters at the plant, enhanced inspections, a “problem sewer” cleaning program and other requirements.

The full scope of the project are to be determined by July 1 of this year and completed in six years, unless the parties agree to an extension.

According to the groups, the facility and its connected collection system have been subject to at least 40 violation notices and five state consent orders since it began operating in 1989. The facility is located off Kingsland Road, downriver from Richmond.

The announcement included comments from the groups’ respective directors, including Bill Street, CEO of the James River Association, which is based in Richmond.

Bill Street. (Image courtesy James River Association)

“This legally enforceable agreement ensures that the public will be better informed and protected from sewage spills and pollution violations,” Street said in the release. “Additionally, we are pleased that all parties involved were able to reach agreement on projects that will benefit the James River and consider climate change impacts in future plans.”

The groups attributed the settlement to efforts by all of the parties, including Henrico, which provided a statement from Bentley Chan, the county’s public utilities director:

“Henrico County is pleased with the dismissal of this lawsuit and to be able to continue our dedication to environmental stewardship and to safeguarding the James River, Chesapeake Bay, and our other vital, shared natural resources,” Chan said. “Henrico County continues to be deeply committed to protecting the health of its residents and visitors.”

The county had initially sought to have the lawsuit dismissed on jurisdictional grounds and arguing that it failed to state a claim. But it ended up working with the groups on the settlement, which included payment by the county of $360,000 in plaintiffs’ attorney fees in addition to the $1 million investment in an environmental project agreed to by the parties.

The lawsuit had sought a declaration that the county was in violation of its sewage discharge permit and the federal Clean Water Act, as well as assessment and remediation of harm caused by the violations, civil penalties, attorneys’ fees and other relief. It was filed by in-house counsel for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Environmental Integrity Project on behalf of those groups and James River Association.

Henrico was represented by its county attorney’s office and by Justin Curtis and Christopher Pomeroy with AquaLaw PLC in Richmond.

Chan said in his statement that the county “continues to be in compliance” with its sewage discharge permit and noted additional efforts to make its infrastructure and facilities “more reliable, resilient, and sustainable.” Those include a 10-year, $1.3 billion capital improvement program that involves more than $200 million in fast-tracked, in-progress projects at the 34-year-old treatment plant.

Bentley Chan

Chan also noted a $64 million initiative to take well and septic systems offline, ongoing private well testing and filter system installations to help residents affected by groundwater contamination, and Henrico’s pending completion of its $280 million Cobbs Creek Reservoir project, designed to secure the county’s drinking water for at least 50 years.

“We look forward to a renewed partnership with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, James River Association, and the Environmental Integrity Project and in uniting our collective efforts in environmental stewardship,” Chan said.

Meanwhile, the City of Richmond is facing a deadline set by the state to improve its sewer system and prevent stormwater overflows that have contributed to pollution in the James. Legislation passed in the 2020 General Assembly requires the city to separate its combined stormwater and sewer system by 2035.

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