|Work under way June 25 at the pumping station on Sleepy Hollow Road.|
Residents of Lake Barcroft brought a long list of complaints to a meeting June 25 convened by Mason Supervisor Penny Gross on the recent sewage spills.
Emotions ran high as people demanded answers to their concerns about health hazards, poor engineering decisions, lack of accountability, environmental damage, and insufficient notification of residents.
There have been four separate spills in the past two months, resulting in a total of up to 413,000 gallons of sewage in the lake. Three of them originated at the pumping station on Sleepy Hollow Road, which was built in 1959.
The first spill, and by far the largest, occurred when temporary pumps at the station failed during a storm on April 29. The temporary pumps were in use as part of a $1.6 million project to install a liner inside the force main along Sleepy Hollow Road. Two of the later leaks happened when the connection between the force main and pump station failed.
Randy Bartlett, deputy director of the Fairfax County Department of Public Works and Environmental Services (DPWES), said DNA testing of water samples showed elevated levels of bacteria at various locations around the lake, but it couldn’t be determined if they were due to the sewage spills or stormwater runoff, since there was also bacteria upstream at Tripps Run and Holmes Run.
Michael Meuller, environmental laboratory manager in the wastewater planning and monitoring division in DPWES, later said there were 20,000 cfu (colony-forming units) per 100 milliliter of E. coli in lake water on May 16. The standard is 235 cfu. E. coli is an indicator of fecal contamination and other disease-bearing pathogens. “I’m not going to say it’s safe,” he said.
Bartlett said his department is working with the Lake Barcroft Watershed Improvement District (WID) to get more baseline testing information, improve communications systems at the pump stations, clear backups at manholes, and install emergency generators at the pump stations.
Lake Barcroft resident Simone Katsas doesn’t think the county is doing enough to correct the problem or prevent future spills.
Based on extensive research and discussions with professional engineers, Katsas discovered flaws in the design of the pump system and pipes, including the lack of system air relieve valves, lack of flexibility in the pump connections, and the lack of a check cut-off valve. She also argued the contractors are using substandard materials in the pipes, resulting in corrosion and toxins getting into the lake.
Katsas’ 2-year-old daughter got sick after playing in the lake on May 18, and she didn’t learn until later that there had been sewage spills on May 15 and 16. On May 19, her own testing of the water outside her house showed E. coli levels in excess of the EPA limit for safe swimming. And she said, the water is still not back to its normal color and odor.
“The release of raw sewage into the lake needs to stop immediately,” Katsas said, “I have no confidence in the current contractor and design team. They need to be replaced or the county should bring in a team to properly supervise them.”
Tom Russell, director of the county’s Wastewater Collection Division, noted that the Dewberry engineering company was brought in last month to advise on the sewer-lining project, which is being carried out by Am-Liner East Inc. The pipe connections are being reinforced, so it will be “one solid pipe,” he said.
“Dewberry wasn’t helpful. Bring in someone else,” urged lakefront resident Kimberly Smith. “July 4 is the biggest day in Lake Barcroft, with lots of swimming, boating, and fishing going on. Can you guarantee there won’t be another spillage before July 4?”
“This should never have failed in the first place,” said another resident. “That’s why you pay for inspectors. It’s reprehensible that we’ve had four incidents.” Russell assured the audience there will be people on site 24/7 monitoring the pumping station.
“The county does not realize the magnitude of the problem and the stakes involved in terms of health and property values,” said resident Nazir Baghat, who noted that the 1,000 houses in the community represent a $1 billion investment. Fairfax County needs to invest in better technological solutions to address the problem but cannot be relied upon to do so, he said, so the Lake Barcroft association should hire its own consultants.
Dave Jones complained that “hundreds of thousands of gallons of sewage got into the lack and no one is being held accountable.”
“The April 29 storm had been predicted for several days. Why weren’t you prepared?” added Kay Cooper. “We lost the use of the lake for days. If the contractors had been negligent, we don’t want them working in the county again. It smells bad in a lot of ways.”
The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality “hasn’t determined where the liability lies,” said Sarah Baker, DEQ regional enforcement manager. The county can be fined if it’s determined that it did something wrong, she said, although the county can’t be subject to civil liability.
No one knows if anyone’s been harmed, said Neil Eisner. People weren’t notified that it was unsafe to go in or near the water.
Gross said DPWES agreed to call her office and WID when there’s a problem, not rely on email, and WID is working on developing a better system to notify residents.
Because the county damaged private property, said Bill Evans, it should carry out a watershed improvement project of comparable scale to offset the damage.
County officials “do not have the right perspective on this,” said resident George November. “We need to focus on prevention.”