Updated on Jan. 8, 2021 at 11:00 a.m. 

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Local aquatic health scientists are expressing their disappointment and concerns after a recent sewage spill in Newport News forced the Hampton Roads Sanitation District to divert 29 million gallons of raw wastewater into the James River and surrounding tributaries. 

“It’s unfortunate,” said Kim Reece, who studies aquatic health at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. “It’s tragic actually.”

Corrosion in a downtown Newport News sewage line caused it to break Monday, spilling raw wastewater into 16th Street between Garden Drive and Walnut Avenue. Sewage flowed into people’s yards and HRSD closed off parts of the area.

The 36-inch sewage line carries wastewater to the Boat Harbor Treatment Plant in Newport News. In an effort to stop the spill until the line is repaired, HRSD officials considered pumping out the sewage and hauling it away by truck. But there was too much wastewater for that to be a viable solution, said HRSD spokeswoman Leila Rice.

As a last resort, the sanitation district diverted the sewage flows away from the homes and businesses along 16th Street and into the James River.

“It’s not ideal and definitely not something we want to do ever,” Rice said. “The immediate need was to get the wastewater out of the streets and out of people’s yards because there’s a much larger public health hazard with it there than putting it into the James.”

Rice said workers have now made preliminary repairs to the broken wastewater line and have stopped the discharge of raw sewage into the river. Approximately 29 million gallons of untreated wastewater flowed into the James and nearby creeks, Rice said. 

The Virginia Department of Health and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality are now working with HRSD to monitor water quality in the river.

VDH has shut down shellfish harvesting on the lower part of the river and some of its tributaries until Jan. 25. The health department says it’s not safe to consume shellfish from the area because the sewage likely contains bacteria and viruses.

Rice said the sewage will disperse because the James is a large body of water with hundreds of trillions of gallons of water flushed in and out with the daily tidal cycle.

“Sampling during past events has shown nature can restore the water to pre-spill conditions rapidly after a very rare and short duration spill,” she said.

Still, Reece, and Chris Moore — a scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation — said the leak could hurt the shellfish industry and add a lot of phosphorus and nitrogen into the James. Such nutrients can settle in the bottom of river and fuel harmful algae blooms when water temperatures rise in the summer. 

“I think it's a very significant spill with significant concerns for the environment as a result of that,” Moore said. “The lower James River is a very important shellfish harvesting area for the commonwealth of Virginia.”

Hampton Roads rivers and the Chesapeake Bay already suffer from poor water quality. Last summer, fecal pollution around Norfolk’s beaches prompted several swimming advisories. Polluted stormwater runoff also fueled several algae blooms that killed fish and threatened oyster farmers.

HRSD has received criticism for letting raw sewage flow into local waterways. In September, over 9 million gallons of wastewater overflowed into the Nansemond and York rivers after heavy rains overwhelmed sewage systems. Oyster farmers around the Nansemond have sued HRSD and the city of Suffolk for allowing the discharges into the river.

Reece and Moore said the sewage leaks reflect problems with HRSD’s infrastructure and a need for more upgrades.

“The tighter the system they have, the less leaks they have, the less pipe fractures and things like that they have, the better water quality is gonna be moving forward,” Moore said. 

Rice said HRSD is committed to protecting Hampton Roads waterways and is in the process of improving its sewage lines. The Newport News wastewater line that broke Monday was installed in 1944 and is part of a $16 million project to replace a two-mile stretch of pipe.

An inspection before the project started, found the aging system suffered from corrosion and warned future failures were possible.