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Alexandria Leaders Grapple With Ten Million Gallons Of Raw Sewage

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This is one of four outfalls in Old Town Alexandria, where raw sewage is dumped into the Potomac River about 28 times a year.
WAMU/Michael Pope
This is one of four outfalls in Old Town Alexandria, where raw sewage is dumped into the Potomac River about 28 times a year.

This story is gross. Really gross.

It involves ten million gallons of raw sewage being dumped directly into the Potomac River. And despite what the signs at the four outfall locations say about the dumping being triggered by rains that are "heavy" or "long," the sewage starts to spill into the river with as little as 0.03 inches of rain.

Now city leaders in Alexandria are seeking a permit that will allow them to continue dumping untreated human waste into the Potomac River, a move that's being fought tooth-and-nail by some residents and environmental activists.

"If you took a railroad tank car down to the Potomac full of sewage and flushed it in there every day it still wouldn't make the amount that we are throwing into the Potomac," says Jack Sullivan, a member of a group called Friends of Dyke Marsh.

His group says it's unacceptable for Alexandria to continue polluting the Potomac River, and they would like to see a more aggressive timeline than the one laid out in the city's current application to continue polluting. City leaders in Alexandria want to set a deadline of 2035.

"Well, I'll be 110," says Marsh. "It's a long way down the line. I mean I think they should be thinking about trying to fixing it in the next few years."

Officials in Alexandria say they need the next two decades to come up with a plan and implement it, a plan that could cost anywhere from $100 million to $300 million. The problem is the city's 19th century sewer system, cutting edge when it was designed but outdated now. Friends of Dyke Marsh president Glenda Booth says the time for action is now, not 2035.

"Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972. That was 41 years ago. So all the localities have had plenty of notice that they need to clean up our waters," she says.

The solution will likely be a series of underground storage tanks similar to the ones being built in the District, where old sewer lines regularly overflow during heavy storms and dump raw sewage into the river. Alexandria officials estimate that could cost as much as $200 million to construct, which is one of the reasons they're seeking the 20-year deadline.

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