Over the last four years, eighty percent of the small-mouthed bass and sunfish population have died in the Shenandoah River. The Shenandoah is now one of the top five most endangered American rivers. Unfortunately in the last 20 years, both public and private enterprises have been allowed to impair the Shenandoah with sewage. We started with a faulty Broadway plant, then came a failed private firm called Sheaffer International, and today the Town of Broadway has taken over this bankrupt polluter with the same plant manager. This is not the blueprint for success. At this time, Virginia regulators have granted the Town of Broadway permission to dump part of their sewage back into the Shenandoah.
In the fall of 2007, Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality’s (DEQ) gave just such a permit to the Town of Broadway. This “Consent Decree” sets “interim limits” on river discharges from operations at the bankrupt Sheaffer Plant. These “interim limits” stretch out to January 2011 allowing “permitted” pollution to the North Fork of the Shenandoah River. Even the Decree’s author, DEQ Regional Director Amy Owens, admits, “On its face, the Decree recognizes that Broadway will be in violation of the Permit for about three years.”
Interestingly, Sheaffer plant has had 67 state and numerous EPA violations since it began operating. The Town of Broadway now is the new owner and operating with similar waste loads. It is reasonable to expect more of the same.
The improperly designed Sheaffer system replaced four old, faltering treatment systems: two in the towns of Timberville and Broadway, and two at local poultry plants. These four had been discharging 1.6 million gallons of wastewater a day into the North Fork. They were dumping some 200,000 pounds of unwanted, damaging nutrients into the river annually. Permit violations were a common occurrence. State water revolving funds reward town plants that do poorly and punish ones that try to do the proper thing.
Environmental laws must address just that ¾ not be merely useless pieces of paper. Such lax state enforcement is not isolated as just over in Page County, DEQ allowed a landfill to violate its permit for many years by over two thousand tons of trash per day.
Oh Shenandoah is Not a Sewer
The Shenandoah Valley acts as a major water filter for the Chesapeake Bay. And, the Shenandoah River is the major tributary downstream into the Potomac River where 90 percent of the Washington DC metro drinking water flows.
Poultry is the leading agricultural activity in the Shenandoah Valley. Livestock in Rockingham County generates roughly one-half billion dollars in yearly revenue. This county is first in Virginia producing turkeys and chickens for meat, and second in both categories among all 982 counties in the nation. For decades poultry waste has been linked with water impairment here, according to many scientific studies.
History of Pollution
In 2000, the Virginia Water Control Broad put up more than $2.5 million in technical assistance grants to help start Sheaffer International. Virginia also capitalized the project in 1999 by issuing $8.5 million in tax-free state industrial development bonds.
Ironically, the Sheaffer plant was not designed to treat water for any kind of release into waterways. It simply breaks down waste so that it can be land applied in irrigation. Unfortunately, they did not have a back-up system for seasonally reduced irrigation demands. What’s more, Sheaffer did not factor in moisture limits due to nitrogen pollution already in the groundwater. Bottom-line, their sewage goes downstream.
This faulty plant consists of two cells: the first treats up to 34.6 million gallons for 3 weeks; the second cell treats up to 23 million gallons for 2 weeks. The holding pond can handle 230 million gallons. Storage capacity matters since irrigation is necessarily seasonal. The original idea was that nearly all discharge would end up in the fields. That any engineer could design such a flawed operation is criminal.
The Sheaffer plant had some 67 river discharge violations recorded in the DEQ file, including discharges many times over permit limits reported by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality since it began in 2000. The first overflow of untreated wastewater into the North Fork occurred two months after startup, in October 2000. There were 13 more at the same Timberville pump station by 2006.
Environmental Gridlock in the Courts
The Sheaffer plant, once seen as a solution for the entire Chesapeake Watershed, now turned into an obsolete sewer system. December 2, 2005, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) initiated administrative action against Sheaffer, citing “gross violations” of its river discharge permit. Remember this action occurred in EPA’s lowest point of environmental enforcement; is this Commonwealth? Since then, there have been a series of lawsuits and injunctions.
Eight months after EPA issued its Compliance Order, three clean water advocacy groups (Shenandoah Riverkeeper, Potomac Riverkeeper and Waterkeepers Alliance) sued Sheaffer for violating its river discharge permit on August 11, 2006. The concerns of Riverkeepers about the health of the North Fork were intensified in 2004 when a devastating fish kill reached upstream as far as Timberville and Broadway – 20 miles from the stream’s headwaters. This generated a lot of publicity. It gave urgency to the idea that something needed to be done about pollution and polluters.
At the end of the waiting period for the Riverkeepers’ suit, on October 12, 2006, Virginia’s Attorney General (AG) stepped in. The AG claimed Sheaffer exceeded permitted river discharge limits for nitrogen and total phosphorus by more than 800 percent in 2005, and more than 200 percent in 2004. Excess chlorine, ammonia and fecal coliform were also cited. And the Sheaffer Plant was accused of discharging raw and partially treated sewage into the North Fork.
What the Future Holds
The design flow for this Broadway/Sheaffer plant is 2 million gallons a day. Pilgrim’s Pride operations average daily discharges of 1 million gallons. In 2000, the other daily flows were: Broadway, 310,000 gallons; Timberville, 140,000; and Cargill (private poultry plant) 144,000. The design allowed for a 21% increase in daily discharges, which in 2000 averaged 1,594,000 gallons each day. In addition, the Town of New Market with its extra wastewater is exploring the feasibility of using this facility.
Pilgrim’s Pride and Cargill in Timberville discharge nearly 1.2 million gallons of pollutant-laden wastewater every day. This is 75% of what’s sent to the Treatment Plant -- and 90% of the nutrient load it could not handle.
Interesting that the EPA’s Comments on the Decree are as critical as those of Riverkeepers. It too says, “interim pre-treatment measures” should be set immediately for the industrial users, and that PPC and Cargill “should be made parties to the Consent Decree.” EPA says its violations were “attributable in large part to the pollutant loading from the…two industrial users.” In particular, EPA cites their high biochemical oxygen demand loading, total suspended solids, and phosphorous.
Riverkeepers continue to press forth. There are two ways to protect the Shenandoah River. Either sue the Town of Broadway in lieu of its current permit, or strictly monitor private sector waste entering the town’s facility. Hopefully in the future any polluter will pay. Also present laws must be enforced to protect public health and our environment.
Pure water is critical for the Valley and so is enforcing the current laws. Virginia must develop market-based punitive measures so that the polluter pays. If there are greater-than-permitted volumes of untreated private poultry waste and chemical discharges, then the polluter should pay their fair share when it goes into the Broadway operation so that the public is not unfairly burdened.
Many small towns (7-9,000 people) in the Valley are spending $30 million dollars each to upgrade their wastewater plants to meet new stringent pollution controls. Broadway and Timberville also have defective collection systems allowing storm water into their sewage streams. Timberville’s problem created spikes that the treatment plant’s pumps and intake pipes were not able to handle. Such spikes, during hard rains, caused the overflow of raw sewage, thus increasing total toxic waste.
Virginia deserves equitable pollution controls. We must stimulate economic development and tourism by preventing this sewage to enter the Shenandoah River. Virginians will both profit from pollution prevention and find a better way to do business if we act now.