Henrico and environmental groups reach $1 million dollar settlement in James River lawsuit

Henrico is vowing to do better to keep pollution and waste out of the James. This comes after it settled a million dollar lawsuit.
Published: Mar. 10, 2023 at 6:44 PM EST
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HENRICO, Va. (WWBT) -A two-year-long legal battle has come to an end involving Henrico County and local environmental groups.

In December 2021, local environmental groups filed a lawsuit against Henrico County, alleging the county’s outdated sewer and wastewater systems released more than 66 million gallons of raw sewage into the James River since 2016.

James River Association, Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Environmental Integrity Project were the three groups involved in the litigation.

James River Association CEO and President Bill Street says Henrico’s Water Reclamation Facility has been polluting the James River for years.

“When raw sewage goes into our waterways, it can make people really sick if they came into contact with it. It also adds to the pollution,” Street said.

According to these groups, the facility has faced nearly 40 violation notices and five different state consent orders since it began operations in 1989.

Chesapeake Bay Foundation Virginia Executive Director Peggy Sanner issued the following statement:

“This settlement is a big win for Henrico County residents, who will now benefit from a $1 million investment in environmental restoration to reduce pollution, better access to timely information on sewage overflows, and many other measures that will protect residents and the James River for years to come. Achieving these goals was the result of dedicated work by all participating entities, including the County of Henrico, CBF, JRA, and EIP.”

Environmental Integrity Project Deputy Director Jen Duggan also issued the following statement in regard to the suit:

“The James River is such a historic and iconic waterway. It is great news that this settlement agreement will help reduce sewage overflows that pose a public health threat to kayakers and anglers. Henrico County’s new public notification system, improved inspections, and wastewater filters – among other steps – will all help the cause of a healthy and restored James River.”

In addition to the $1 million investment in environmental restoration, Henrico County agreed to modifications of its consent order with Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality, which now requires Henrico County to:

  • Notify the public of sewage overflows from its collection system into waterways through a web-based map that is updated daily and public outreach through door hangers and bill inserts.
  • Accelerate the regardingconstruction of new filters at its wastewater treatment plant.
  • Ramp up sewer inspections, including video inspections of sewer pipes and smoke testing.
  • Launch a problem sewer cleaning program.
  • Consider a program to address sewage overflows originating on private property.
  • Take into account the effects of heavier rainfalls due to climate change on Henrico’s sewage system.

“Our climate is changing, and it’s causing increased rainfall for increased sewer overflows, so that really needs to be a part of our future work,” said Street. “Yes, the county has done a lot of work, but we’ve got a lot more work to do.”

It’s work that Director of Henrico Public Utilities Bentley Chan says they’re already tackling.

“We’re very happy this lawsuit is behind us,” Chan said. “We’re very happy we could come to a beneficial agreement with the Chesapeake Bay and James River Association. I guess what was a little confusing to us is by the time the lawsuit was in progress, a lot of these projects were already started.”

Chan says Henrico has been complying since April 2021.

According to Chan, sewer systems are not intended to overflow or leak. Still, they can happen due to an overwhelming amount of heavy rain that exceeds the system’s capacity or mechanical failure.

He says sewage overflows addressed in the lawsuit result from heavy rainfall.

Chan says they’re investing millions in stormwater drainage improvements, waterway restorations and infrastructure upgrades, including a $70-million-dollar filter renewal project underway.

“If you look behind me, you can see we’re building all new filters for the in-state process treating wastewater,” Chan said.

Chan says this is a small part of the county’s big effort.

“Overall, the county is reinvesting $1.3 billion over ten years into its water and wastewater infrastructure,” Chan said.

He says most of these environmental efforts won’t be complete until the end of 2026.