Rappahannock Friends and Lovers of Our Watershed

Washington wastewater discharge permit approved June 1

By Monty Tayloe
Rappahannock News 06/07/2006

The Town of Washington's application for a permit to discharge 60,000 gallons of treated wastewater effluent into the Rush River was approved on June 1 by a unanimous vote of the State Water Control Board.

The decision will allow Washington to move forward with the design of their proposed sewer treatment plant, and should end at least the first chapter of a contentious debate between the town and the Rappahannock County Citizen's group, the Friends of the Rush River.

Barring an appeal of the SWCB's decision , the town will design a sewage treatment plant and submit their plan to DEQ for approval. The proposed plant will be designed to produce treated wastewater up to the standards of DEQ's requirements. These requirements have been made slightly higher through the efforts of the Friends of the Rush River, and the permit will require higher levels of dissolved oxygen than the original, as well as in-stream monitoring of the discharge within the Rush. According to Mayor Eugene Leggett, construction on the plant could begin as early as Spring 2007, though the Mayor described this as an “optimistic” prediction.

Quite a sight

In recent months, the issue of Washington's permit application became important to residents from all over the county, and motivated many concerned citizens on both sides to become involved in the permit process. At the June 1 SWCB meeting, board member Komal Jain described the March 28 DEQ public hearing on the permit as “the most well attended public meeting I have ever officiated. It was quite a sight.”

The difference of opinion between Washington and the Friends of the Rush River became so contentious that by the June 1 meeting, both sides had hired attorneys specializing in “water law” to represent them before the SWCB. In addition to their attorney, Chris Pomeroy of Aqualaw, Washington was supported before the SWCB by Rappahannock County Administrator John McCarthy, Delegate Todd Gilbert's aide Gary Frink and State Senator Mark Obenshain. Mayor Eugene Leggett and several citizens from Washington and Rappahannock County also spoke at the meeting.

“I have never seen a local government body as conscientious and progress minded as the local governing bodies of Rappahannock County and Washington,” Obenshain told the SWCB.

Obenshain and Gilbert both visited Washington and examined the town's dire septic problems for themselves.

“I wouldn't be here if this wasn't important, said Obenshain.

Added to the comments of the representatives was the testimony of DEQ's Tom Faha, who directed the writing of Washington's permit.

“It's my personal judgment that this is the right answer,” Faha told the board.

Part of the problem

The Friends of the Rush River and other opponents of the Washington discharge permit were represented by attorney Bill Ellis, and Christina Loock. Loock's husband Donald spoke before the SWCB on behalf of the Piedmont Environmental Council, though his comments asked for stronger regulation within the permit rather than opposing Washington's discharge into the river. The “Friends” lawyer, Ellis, asked the board to delay their decision until Washington could produce documentation of their requirements for a sewage plant and that they had considered all available alternatives to discharging into the Rush.

“If they have no other option, why can't they demonstrate that?” asked Ellis. Ellis also questioned the policies of the Department of Environmental Quality, arguing that their standards were not high enough, and that continuing to allow effluent discharge into impaired, intermittent rivers like the Rush was irresponsible.

“If the Board is not part of the solution, it's part of the problem.” said Ellis.

Although at first the intelligence and scientific “Friends” objections to the permit seemed to sway the SWCB in the direction of temporarily tabling their decision, in the end the board appeared to be moved by appeals from Washington's residents. Michelle Schwartz, Laura Dodd, and John MacPherson, among others, shared accounts and photos of the odors, flowing raw sewage, and health dangers that go along with Washington's septic problems.

“I think we have to give them an answer now, “ said Jack Kiser, of the SWCB, shortly before the board's unanimous vote in favor of the application.

©Times Community Newspapers 2006