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Boosting Public Notification

On May 19, 2018, the Prince William County Service Authority experienced a sanitary sewer overflow (SSO) at its Powells Creek sewage pump station after a severe thunderstorm caused power fluctuations that shut down pumps inside the facility near Route 1 and Powells Creek in Woodbridge. Due to the heavy rainfall and flooding on May 19, the Service Authority responded to many alarms at its pump stations, including Powells Creek. A Service Authority technician arrived at the Powells Creek pump station within about 90 minutes of the initial alarm and stopped the overflow within 5 minutes of on-site verification. This was in full compliance with Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (VDEQ) regulations (as outlined in the Administrative Code of Virginia, 9 VAC 25-870-430, Paragraph L, subdivisions 7 through 10, inclusive).

The utility inspected and cleaned the area around the pump station, and then disinfected it with lime. Service Authority technicians looked for evidence of raw sewage or aquatic life kill and observed none. The technicians also placed signage in the area of the SSO advising nearby residents of the overflow, which was estimated to have been less than 140,000 gallons.

The Service Authority reported the May 19 SSO to the VDEQ in less than two hours, which is well within VDEQ’s 24-hour notification requirement. 

BACKGROUND

During major rain events, many utilities have difficulty keeping up with the flow running through their sewer systems. Heavy rain typically results in more inflow and infiltration (I&I) into sewer lines, which can result in an SSO. In addition, lightning and high winds can result in power outages or electrical faults in sewage pump stations and potentially cause overflows. The Washington D.C. metropolitan area has received an unusual amount of heavy rainfall and stormy weather this summer, with nearly 24 inches falling in Prince William County since May 1. Over the last three years, the Service Authority has experienced two SSOs, including the May 19 event. By contrast, there have been 153 SSOs in the Northern Region* of Virginia during the last 12 months, due in part to the extensive rainfall the area has experienced. 

The Service Authority continuously performs preventative maintenance to keep its sanitary sewer system in good working order. This includes video inspections of sewer mains and manholes, a sewer main and manhole rehabilitation program, and pump station and sewer main replacements. During the past seven years, the Service Authority has invested at least $43 million improving its sanitary sewer system. In addition, the Service Authority performs weekly physical inspections and maintenance of each sewage pump station.

FUTURE ACTIONS

Moving forward, the Service Authority will enhance its public notification process over and above regulatory requirements for reportable SSOs. This process will include posting notifications on the Service Authority’s website and social media accounts as well as providing increased notification to public officials and agencies. The Service Authority will also place signs in English and Spanish at the site of any SSO that enters a body of water. 

As the Service Authority focuses on enhancing its communication protocols, it also encourages customers to help keep the sanitary sewer system in good working order. This includes not flushing wipes down the toilet and not pouring cooking grease down drains.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that “a few SSOs may be unavoidable. Unavoidable SSOs include those occurring from unpreventable vandalism, some types of blockages, extreme rainstorms and acts of nature such as earthquakes or floods.” For additional information about SSOs, please read the EPA's FAQ.

“No system is completely foolproof against extreme weather events, as evidenced by the Powells Creek SSO,” said Operations & Maintenance Division Director Don Pannell. “However, the Service Authority has an excellent track record of preventing problems, and we do our best to mitigate any impacts on our customers and the environment in the rare cases when they do occur.”

* As defined by VDEQ, the Northern Region of Virginia encompasses the counties of Arlington, Caroline, Culpeper, Fairfax, Fauquier, King George, Loudoun, Louisa, Madison, Orange, Prince William, Rappahannock, Spotsylvania and Stafford; and the cities of Alexandria, Fairfax, Falls Church, Fredericksburg, Manassas and Manassas Park.

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