Hampton Roads: Plan to tackle clean-water sewer mandate is all or nothing proposal
February 17, 2014|By Michael Welles Shapiro and Ali Rockett, email@example.com
No matter what, Hampton Roads residents are in for sewer rate increases in the coming decades.
As in metro regions across the country, the Environmental Protection Agency has mandated that officials here cut the amount of sewage that leaks out of aging or broken pipes during heavy rain events.
The Hampton Roads Sanitation District says it has a fix that will limit the rate increases by a whopping $1 billion, reducing the overall cost of work to $2.2 billion. And it has asked the region’s biggest cities, smaller rural counties and the Town of Smithfield to tackle the capital intensive sewer upgrades as a big team.
Essentially, the sales pitch goes like this: if disparate localities work collectively through HRSD to identify and fix the region’s worst sewer problems, it will get the biggest bang for the buck as it tries to satisfy a EPA sewer overflow mandate.
And under the requirement, HRSD has through the end of the month to convince 14 localities to commit to working together on an aggressive program of sewer repairs and improvements. And because of the way the decree is worded, HRSD doesn’t have an exact list of projects it would pursue; just big-picture estimates of the cost to ratepayers across the region.
Most of the region’s cities, including Hampton, Newport News and Poquoson, have approved the plan, convinced that pursuing regional savings will also mean savings for their citizens.
But it hasn’t been a slam dunk, with pockets of resistance in rural York and Gloucester counties where some politicians are leery of their residents having to pony up to patch up aging infrastructure in the region’s urban areas.
“Because our system is relatively newer … we’re going to be the least benefited by this program when compared to the archaic systems down in Hampton and Newport News and Norfolk and wherever else,” said Walter Zaremba, a York County supervisor, during the board’s Feb. 4 meeting.
Tuesday’s board meeting is the last chance for Zaremba and his fellow supervisors to approve or nix the regionalization plan
It’s hard to forecast how that vote will come out. A series of Daily Press interviews with supervisors suggests there’s considerable reluctance on the board.
“I’m not in favor of it if we don’t know what the cost is to residents,” said board chairman Don Wiggins in a recent interview.
“My problem is approving something without knowing the cost,” Wiggins said. “That doesn’t make sense.”
In Gloucester County, which will also vote on the plan Tuesday, Board of Supervisors chair Robert “J.J.” Orth said board members also want more specifics.
“We’ve been told it’ll save us X millions of dollars, but there’s a high level of uncertainty in the numbers,” Orth said.
“It sounds like this will be good for the region, but do all the partners benefit equally?” he asked, indicating that needs to be demonstrated.
“Gloucester has an equal vote to the big guys, and we each have an equal chance to knock the whole thing out if we just say, ‘screw it.'”
The tough sell
To some extent, HRSD General Manager Ted Henifin is asking localities to have faith — faith in his agency’s preliminary estimates, its intentions and its negotiation strategy.
“There are some unknowns from a perspective of how will this change my individual ratepayers bill,” Henifin said, “but what’s known is it’s going to be a billion in savings.”
“It’s rough, rough numbers but our rates (if a regional effort is rejected) will increase above those projected rates by about $9 a month for an average customer over 20 years,” he said.
That works out to $2,160 over the two decades.
And while several localities “may think their systems are in great shape,” Henifin said, those same localities have reported they have “in excess of over $80 million or $100 million” worth of work that they would need to address almost immediately if they deal with the EPA on an individual basis.
“The regionalized approach allows us to focus truly where there are leaky areas, which is why we can do it cheaper than we can individually,” he said.
Henifin says he’s advocating a pragmatic solution to deal with what he sees as a misguided EPA water quality effort.
“In Hampton Roads the overflow is not impacting water quality,” he said. “It impacts quality of life if you’re in a neighborhood that has overflow.”
But on the whole sewage spills are so few “compared to the amount of water in the James River, or the Elizabeth River and the Chesapeake Bay — It’s truly a thimbleful.”
“What’s impacting water quality in Hampton Roads and the Chesapeake Bay is nutrients,” he said.
The Chesapeake Bay Program, a partnership of bay state governments, identifies wastewater treatment plants across the vast watershed as the source of “the majority of nutrients” into the bay, in the form of treated water that still contains phosphorous and nitrogen.
The group also points to farm and roadway runoff, and various sources of air pollution as challenges to water quality.
HRSD says it is filtering greater amounts of those nutrients from the treated water it releases into waterways, and it also reports curbing the overflows of untreated sewage over the years.
Normally, its system moves 165 million gallons a day to treatment plants. Those plants can treat 249 million gallons daily. But if a heavy rain starts flooding into the system’s manholes, clean outs or cracked pipes, the amount sloshing through the system’s pipes can exceed that.
That happened 40 times in 2012, when nearly 23 million gallons overflowed into the Bay, and 14 times last year, when 714,000 gallons did. In 2009, the year before the consent decree, the agency reported 95 overflows and a total of 2.7 million gallons of untreated sewage flowing into waterways as a result.
The EPA, however, has accused sewer authorities nationwide, of not reporting or underreporting sewage spills.
Over the last 15 years, the EPA has gone from metro area to metro area to achieve that goal. Hampton Roads is the last metro area in the Mid-Atlantic that has been forced through a court-enforced order to upgrade its sewer pipes and treatment facilities.
The agency’s goal is to get metro areas, and Hampton Roads specifically, get to the point where it’s reporting no sewage spills at all.
Furthermore, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, an environmental advocacy group, has identified eliminating sewer system overflows in the six-state bay area, as a particularly effective way of attacking the problem of excess nitrogen and so-called dead zones that result from it.
According to language agreed upon by HRSD and the EPA, the authority will strive through sewer improvements to “achieve full compliance” with the federal Clean Water Act, which means zero “unauthorized discharges” from its treatment plants.
Whether such an agreement is necessary or overbearing, Henifin says he’s trying to implement the required sewer improvements as efficiently and cheaply as possible.
The clean-up effort
Unlike water pipes that spill, when a pipe under pressure burst, sewage systems tend to overflow because outside water rainwater seeps in to pipes and manholes, overwhelming downstream pump stations and treatment plants.
Locally, “pipes are large enough to accommodate large flows,” said Newport News’ Director of Engineering Everett Skipper, but there are defects in the labyrinth of local and regional pipes and manholes that have been installed and built over many decades.
In a big storm “the water moves in, and that’s especially true in Tidewater, because of the high water table,” Skipper said.
That water is from that point forward considered tainted.
“A million gallons of water and one drop of sewage equals a million gallons of sewage, and you have to treat that water,” he said. So, in that way, a heavy rain can overwhelm the HRSD plants, designed to handle what’s flushed down toilets and swirled down drain pipes.
Henifin has noted that HRSD can save considerable amounts of money by fixing the really bad storm water infiltration points, which in some cases are in city- and not HRSD-owned pipes. The other option — and the option that a go-it alone approach may require — is to build and upgrade treatment plants and pump stations to handle rainwater infiltration at a high cost.
Henifin acknowledges one or two localities could spike the regional effort: the idea of the little guys having to subsidize aging city sewers is out there.
“I know that is a fear,” Henifin.
But he said, “to start drawing a distinction that every dollar you put in has to come back to your community” would doom the regional approach and would have doomed previous regional efforts — for example, a recent overhaul of the York River Sewage Treatment Plant.
With considerable uncertainty about how the remaining localities will act, HRSD is also exploring a back-up option.
“We’re starting to look at what we do if these folks don’t want to play,” Henifin said.
HRSD, he said, will see if it can negotiate as a region minus the one or two localities that reject the current deal that’s before them.
“It adds all kinds of complications about how we do that from an equitable point of view and a legal point of view,” however, Henifin said.
Skipper said he’s hoping for some regional unity, so that all the localities don’t have to go back to the drawing board.
“We don’t necessarily love any of the (regional) plans, but we do know that if we go it alone we’ll be paying more individually and as a region.”
The Environmental Protection Agency says Hampton Roads’ cities and counties must patch up or otherwise improve their sewer systems.
The Hampton Roads Sanitation District, a regional body that owns and operates the area’s pump stations and treatment plants, says there are two ways to go about this with starkly different costs.
Individual approach: $3.24 billion in sewer projects. Of that localities are estimated to need $2.1 billion in sewer upgrades paid for through local sewer rate hikes; HRSD would be on the hook for an additional $1.1 billion-worth of improvements.
Regional approach: $2.18 billion in projects. HRSD says if it studies and fixes the worst leaks in the region, it can tackled the problem for $1 billion less. Those upgrades would be paid for through gradual HRSD rate increases.
Nov. 2016 For more than 2 1/2 years, however, local ratepayers won’t get precise cost figures, under a regionalization, as HRSD negotiates with the EPA and tries to lower the overall cost and lengthen the time period in which it must perform the upgrades.
Source: HRSD; interview with HRSD General Manager Ted Henifin
York County Board of Supervisors meeting
When: 6 p.m. Tuesday
Where: York Hall, 301 Main St., Yorktown
Agenda: The board saved its sewer vote for its last item.
Gloucester County Board of Supervisors meeting
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Colonial Courthouse, 6504 Main St., Gloucester Courthouse
Agenda: The sewer vote is the fifth out of 10 on the supervisor’s work session agenda.