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Deadline Set for Richmond to Stop Dumping Sewage Into James River

James River view with Richmond skyline in background
The James River. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM)

Richmond will need to work aggressively to stop dumping sewage in the James River under a bill passed by the General Assembly. 

The bill, sponsored by Senators Richard Stuart (R-Fredericksburg) and Siobhan Dunnavant (R-Henrico), sets a 2035 deadline for Richmond to finish upgrading its combined sewage and stormwater system. When heavy rain overloads the system, raw sewage leaks out into rivers and creeks. Richmond spewed more than 3 billion gallons of sewage into nearby waterways in 2018.

Dunnavant said the bill will require the city to create a plan to address the issue by 2021 and start construction by 2022. 

“We need to use our ingenuity and make it a priority,” Dunnavant said. “We can figure out together what that job is, how we get it done and how we pay for it.”

Dunnavant said the state would help fund the sewer system upgrades. 

A spokesperson for Richmond’s Department of Public Utilities said Thursday that the city has been working on addressing the pollution caused by its combined wastewater system and finishing the job could cost half a billion dollars.

“We appreciate the collaboration and work of the governor’s office and Senators Stuart and Dunnavant to develop a timeline and a plan to make future investments to the CSO system that will further protect the health of the James River in a way that will not place undue burdens on Richmond’s ratepayers, including the most vulnerable,” Calvin Farr, head of DPU, said in a statement.

Combined sewage and stormwater systems are common in older localities throughout the country. The City of Alexandria had to submit a long-term work plan for improving it’s combined system to the Department of Environmental Quality in 2014.

Peggy Sanner, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said pollution from sewage overflows into the James River can increase levels of harmful bacteria and nutrients. 

“That leads to potential health hazards and certainly not a good situation for the City of Richmond, which is so dependent on this important resource,” she said.

The bill is still awaiting Gov. Ralph Northam’s signature.