By Sarah Vogelsong
Aqua Virginia, Inc., is being charged by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality with violations of both its permit and Virginia laws regulating waste discharge at its Lake Land’Or Wastewater Treatment Plant in Ruther Glen.
According to the consent order issued by the DEQ and signed by Aqua Virginia, company monitoring reports showed that it had exceeded the legal limitations for the discharge of E. coli, nitrogen, suspended solids, and phosphorus into a tributary of the South River during 2013. The DEQ issued notices of these violations six times over the past year.
Aqua Virginia states in the order that these violations were due to operator error and the loss of aeration units, which ultimately impaired the plant’s ability to remove sufficient nitrogen from the wastewater and led to the failure of its UV system, which kills bacteria.
Additionally, the company claims that the plant received a “toxic shock” in August 2013 when, according to reports from residents of the Lake Land’Or subdivision, an unauthorized truck carrying partially treated waste allegedly dumped its contents into the sewer system.
Tim Castillo, Aqua’s operations manager for Virginia, stated that although the company cannot say for sure that the shock was due to unauthorized dumping, the results of Aqua’s periodic testing of effluent at the time “came back exceedingly high.”
“It was visible to us,” he said.
The company has submitted documentation of the steps it has taken to correct these violations, including repairing the aeration apparatus, rehabilitating the UV disinfection system, and increasing its security at the Lake Land’Or community. Cameras have been installed around the plant, and a list of authorized Aqua staff who are permitted to enter the grounds has been drawn up.
A new operator was also hired in March 2013.
“It took us several months to resolve all the issues that had built up prior to that,” said Castillo.
The consent order is administrative, meaning that Aqua Virginia is not required to take any further corrective steps beyond paying a civil charge of $8,295 within 30 days of settlement.
The DEQ order issued this past April is not the first that Aqua Virginia has faced. Similar orders were also issued in 2004 and 2007 for exceeding discharge limitations. The 2004 order required the company to submit plans to DEQ for a new, expanded facility. The 2007 order, which amended the earlier order, required that Aqua carry out further updates and testing and pay a civil charge of $12,100.
At the May 13 Board of Supervisors meeting, Western Caroline representative Jeffrey Black condemned the violations.
“I would just like to say that that is totally unacceptable,” Black said. “All citizens in Caroline County deserve clean water, and I’m not sure that’s being protected when we see high levels of E. coli that are being discharged into the South River.”
Black also expressed his concern regarding the size of the fine.
“Eight thousand dollars to Aqua America is probably absolutely nothing,” he said.
However, Sarah Baker, a DEQ regional enforcement manager, stated, “I don’t think we would assess (the fine) as low; I think we would assess it as consistent with other comparable violations.”
Residents of Lake Land’Or have expressed a number of complaints with Aqua over the years concerning both the quality of the water they receive and the prices they pay for it.
“People have complained about discoloration of the water, the smell of the water sometimes,” said Jeff Black.
This past winter, residents discovered that one of Aqua’s main pumps, as well as an auxiliary pump, in the Lake Land’Or community had failed.
“Raw sewage was coming out of their access point and was spilling out into a creek area,” said John Copeland, a resident and treasurer of the community’s Board of Directors. Copeland called Black, and video footage was collected that was later sent to DEQ. Aqua Virginia responded to the incident and resolved the issue.
“We haven’t heard of any problems since then,” said Copeland.
Residents on the Lake Land’Or side of the lake receive only water services from Aqua, while residents on the Heritage side receive both water and sewer services.
In June 2012, at a public hearing convened to discuss a proposed rate hike by the company for water and sewer services, Black presented a petition signed by 1,100 customers objecting to the increases.
“It’s not a company that people are very happy with at this point,” Black said in a recent phone conversation.
Regarding the current situation, however, Castillo offered assurances: “Everything was completed and the issues were resolved.”