EPA Wet Weather Consent Decree

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Background

HRSD has been working cooperatively with 13 of the Hampton Roads localities and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to develop a plan of action to study the regional sewer system and identify improvements that can be made to reduce the frequency and severity of sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs). Each locality and HRSD will take specific actions over the next few years to develop a Regional Wet Weather Management Plan (RWWMP) to minimize SSOs.

To help explain this effort, we are providing the answers to a few frequently asked questions:

What are sanitary sewer overflows, SSOs, spills, releases…? 
Regardless of what it is called, anytime untreated sewage gets out of the sewer system there is a problem.   The HRSD sewer system serves a geographic area of 2,808 square miles with a population of 1.7 million.  HRSD owns and operates about 500 miles of pipe lines that carry sewage from locality sewer systems to the HRSD treatment plants.  This system, which is designed to handle wastewater from homes and businesses, has the capacity to treat 249 million gallons per day.  Every effort is made to design, construct, and operate the system so that no sewage ever gets out of the system.  However, occasionally some does due to a variety of reasons including blockages, damage to pipes, mechanical failures, vandalism, or very heavy rain or unusually high tides.

Why do heavy rains or unusually high tides affect the sewer system?  Doesn’t the sanitary sewer system handle only sewage while a separate storm sewer system handles rain water runoff? 
The HRSD system is designed to only handle sewage.  Each Hampton Roads locality has a separate system for handling storm water runoff.  Unfortunately, during extreme weather events, the storm sewer systems are overwhelmed in many parts of Hampton Roads, causing rain water to flood streets and low lying properties.  Portions of the HRSD system or the locality’s sanitary sewer system often are flooded as well.  This causes storm water to enter the sewer system via manholes, cracked pipes, clean outs, etc.  This additional flow is far beyond what the sanitary sewer system was designed to handle.  Consequently, flooding can often cause an overflow from the sewer system, allowing a mixture of untreated sewage and rain water to get out of the system.

How often and how much does the HRSD sewer system overflow in Hampton Roads? 
HRSD takes environmental protection very seriously and our record of permit compliance is unparalleled among wastewater treatment agencies in the United States.  HRSD has won numerous awards related to permit compliance.  The HRSD system currently carries about 165 million gallons per day to the various treatment plants throughout the Hampton Roads region.  While any quantity of untreated sewage is not desirable, the amount lost accounts for less than 1/10th of one percent of the volume of wastewater successfully conveyed to the treatment plants. 

Storms are the cause of most SSOs in the HRSD system.  Due to the impact of storms, the number of SSOs varies dramatically from year to year based on the weather.  The following table summarizes past HRSD overflows:

Year
Number of Overflows
Total Quantity (gal) *
2003
70
1,088,990
2004
44
1,955,570
2005
30
362,592
2006
64
808,212
2007
23
834,435
2008
15
22,330
2009
95
2,744,936
2010
59
3,378,912
2011
35
1,880,086
2012
40
22,850,543
2013
14
722,237
2014
29
2,250,915
2015
18
516,704
2016
49**
6,148,239**

* Quantity shown is based on estimate of amount of overflow when estimate was available. Some overflows cannot be estimated as
  the locations are inaccessible due to high water or are not visible beneath flooded areas.
** Included two major weather events in Hurricane Matthew and Tropical Storm Hermine.

What is the danger to public health from sewer overflows? 
Untreated sewage contains microbial pathogens and toxins that may make people sick through direct skin contact or if ingested.  Although it is clear that sanitary sewer overflows contain disease-causing pathogens and other pollutants, EPA has limited information on actual health impacts occurring as a result of sewer overflows as discussed in the EPA Report to Congress, Impacts and Controls of CSOs and SSOs. Additionally, the majority of the volume released by sewer overflows occurs during severe storms, when fewer people are likely to come in contact with contaminated waters.

If there is little direct data on human health impacts from SSOs, why is this such an important issue? 
HRSD’s mission is to protect public health and the waters of Hampton Roads, and we are working closely with localities to minimize the amount of overflows in the regional system.  Clean water is our goal and reducing overflows is a critical factor in meeting that goal.  Additionally, the Clean Water Act contains no provisions that allow any overflows, regardless of the reason, making all overflows violations of the Clean Water Act. Finally, the EPA has identified elimination of SSOs as a National Enforcement Priority.

What are HRSD and the Hampton Roads Region doing to address SSOs? 
HRSD has been working cooperatively with 13 of the Hampton Roads localities and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to develop a plan of action to study the regional sewer system and identify improvements that can be made to reduce the frequency and severity of sewer overflows.  This cooperative effort has resulted in a Special Order by Consent issued by the Virginia State Water Control Board that outlines the specific actions each locality and HRSD must take over the next several years to develop a Regional Wet Weather Management Plan to minimize SSOs.  The Hampton Roads Region has adopted Regional Technical Standards to guide this work and all of the regional partners have entered into a Memorandum of Agreement that details each partner’s role and responsibility in this important regional effort. 

How much is the region spending to address SSOs and who is paying the bill? 
The total cost has not been calculated.  Prior to the current emphasis on SSOs, each locality and HRSD were doing a number of things to minimize SSOs with the total regional investment in the tens of millions of dollars each year.  The increased emphasis and aggressive schedule will accelerate the pace of this on-going work and will likely require hundreds of millions of dollars over the foreseeable future.  The funds for this work will come from the individual rate payers throughout the region, both with the collection system maintenance fee charged by the individual localities and the sewage conveyance and treatment fee charged by HRSD.  These rates are predicted to increase over the next several years to accommodate the increased spending need.  More definitive cost information will be developed with the Regional Wet Weather Management Plan.

When the region has completely implemented the Regional Wet Weather Management Plan, will there be any more overflows? 
Unfortunately, overflows cannot be totally eliminated.  In their FAQs about SSOs EPA writes that “a few SSOs may be unavoidable. Unavoidable SSOs include those occurring from unpreventable vandalism, some types of blockages, extreme rainstorms, and acts of nature such as earthquakes or floods.”  Even after HRSD and the Hampton Roads localities invest hundreds of millions of dollars over the next 30 years to address SSO issues, there still will be some events that cause overflows.  However, the frequency and volume of those events should be minimized through these efforts.

How is EPA helping HRSD and the region address SSOs? 
EPA has issued their own enforcement action against HRSD requiring the elimination of SSOs without the benefit of public participation or negotiation with any of the stakeholders.  This Unilateral Administrative Order (UAO) resembles the Virginia DEQ Special Order by Consent but does not respect the aggressive schedule developed by the state and regional partners.   EPA is working with cities across the United States to address SSOs through various enforcement programs. HRSD entered into a Consent Decree with EPA in February 2010. This document will supersede the UAO. 

How can I help minimize sewer overflows? 
In parts of Hampton Roads, some homes still have storm water drainage features connected to the sanitary sewer system.  Downspouts, sump pumps, area drains, and similar features designed to remove rain water runoff from in or around your home should not be connected to the sanitary sewer system.  In most localities, these connections are even illegal.  Check around your house to ensure storm water is not draining to the sanitary sewer system. 

Keep cleanout caps securely fastened on all cleanout openings.  Cleanouts are access points for the sanitary sewer line that serves your home.  Cleanouts are typically found near the point where your sewer line comes out of your house (about five feet from the building) and close to your property line, where your line would connect with the public sewer in the street or public alley.  Most cleanouts are installed in metal covered boxes and have a threaded plug in the pipe opening.  Keeping the plug in place will keep rain water from draining into the clean out box and down into the sanitary sewer line beneath.

What you put down (or do not put down) the kitchen drain can have a direct impact on sanitary sewer overflows.  Grease and debris can build up in pipes and cause blockages that can cause sanitary sewers to back up and overflow.  To keep grease out of the pipes, allow it to cool and harden and then put it out with your garbage.

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