SR3 Program FAQs

When did WSSC begin sewer overflow (SSO) discussions?

WSSC began discussions with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) in spring 2002 on the occurrence of sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs) in WSSC's wastewater collection system. Discussions focused on developing a comprehensive wastewater collection improvement plan to dramatically minimize, and eliminate where possible, future SSOs. The Natural Resources Defense Council, Anacostia Watershed Society, Audubon Naturalist Society and Friends of Sligo Creek served WSSC with a notice of intent to sue for violations of the Clean Water Act in September 2004, prompting DOJ to file suit on behalf of EPA in November 2004.

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What is a sanitary sewer system?

WSSC's sewer system is a modern sanitary, or separate, system - meaning the pipes that carry wastewater from homes and businesses to wastewater treatment plants are separate from the storm water drainage system.

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How extensive is WSSC's wastewater collection system?

Serving a 1,000-square-mile area in Montgomery and Prince George's Counties, WSSC maintains more than 5,400 miles of sewer mains and adds approximately 50 miles of new mains each year.

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What is an SSO and what causes them?

A sanitary sewer overflow (SSO) is when untreated or partially treated wastewater discharges from a sanitary sewer system. It can be caused by blockages, sewer pipe defects, excess flow, vandalism, and electrical disruptions at treatment plants or pumping stations. Blockages (grease, roots, debris) are the leading cause of SSOs in WSSC's system.  In 2016, about 16% of the SSO blockages were caused by fats, oils or grease buildup.

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What is done to clean up an overflow?

Sewer overflow sites are thoroughly cleaned after an overflow. No identifiable residue (e.g., sewage solids, papers, rags, plastics, and rubber products) is to remain. Where practical, the affected area is thoroughly flushed and cleaned of any sewage or washed-down with water. Solids and debris are flushed, swept, raked, picked-up, and transported for proper disposal. The area is restored as much as possible to the original condition.

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How much will this cost WSSC?

Over the life of the consent decree, WSSC costs are estimated to be over $1 billion in operating and capital expenditures to enhance our wastewater collection system. Thanks to our strong partnership with Federal, State and local officials, WSSC has been able to program the costs into our budget process. This settlement includes $4.4 million for environmental projects and a $1.1 million civil penalty.

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When did the agreement take effect?

December 7, 2005.

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I've also heard this called a consent decree. What is a consent decree?

A consent decree is a negotiated settlement of a lawsuit that is approved by the Court. Once approved by the Court, it becomes a Court order that must be followed. The USEPA enforces it through the Maryland Department of the Environment. On June 29, 2016, an amendment was entered through the court extending the remedial measure deadline by six years.

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What other utilities have negotiated SSO settlements with US EPA?

Since the late 1990's, the federal government has issued consent decrees to numerous wastewater utilities for the occurrence of SSOs. Jurisdictions which have negotiated consent decrees with the federal government to resolve SSO-related matters include Baltimore City, Maryland (2002); Mobile, Alabama (2002); Hamilton County, Ohio (Cincinnati) (2002); Toledo, Ohio (2002); the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (PRASA) (2003); the Washington, D.C. Water and Sewer Authority (D.C. Water) (2003); Los Angeles, California (2004); Knoxville, Tennessee (2005); Baltimore County, Maryland (2005);  Hartford, Connecticut (2006); San Diego, California  (2007); Revere, Massachusetts (2010); Lexington, Kentucky (2011); St. Louis, Missouri (2011), Memphis, Tennessee (2012), Miami-Dade County, Florida (2013), Lima, Ohio (2014), and Fort Smith, Arkansas (2015).

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What are the system enhancements?

  • Inspecting 1,120 miles of sewer mains in five years via closed circuit television (completed 1,145 miles by 2010);
  • Inspecting 625 miles of large sewer mains (15-inch diameter +) via video and specialized tests as part of the initial trunk sewer inspection program (completed 825 miles by 2010). Phase II trunk sewer inspection started in 2012 and approximately 825 miles of large sewer mains will be inspected;
  • Cleaning 1,540 miles of sewers in five years (completed 1,540 miles by 2012);
  • Continuing comprehensive sewer surveys in ten sewer basins in Montgomery and Prince George's counties in eight years using state-of-the-art technology to capture data on rainfall, wastewater flows, the conditions of pipes and manholes and areas where sewer mains have become exposed due to creek/stream erosion. These sewer basins include: Northeast Branch, Piscataway, Broad Creek, Beaverdam Branch and Parkway in Prince George's County; and Cabin John, Rock Creek, Little Falls, Rock Run and Watts Branch in Montgomery County (complete in 2012);
  • Completing rehabilitation work identified by inspections (As of December 2014, repaired or replaced 127 miles of sewer);
  • Conducting semi-annual water quality monitoring throughout both Counties;
  • Since 2007, WSSC has implemented an enhanced Fats, Oils and Grease (FOG) Program, by helping to increase public awareness for the proper disposal of FOG at home - "Can the Grease" and also through a more stringent food service establishment (FSE) FOG control and discharge monitoring program. Since 2007, WSSC has inspected over 11,700 FSEs that have existed at one time or another in the two counties of the WSSD. As of the end of 2016 WSSC had approximately 4,949 permitted and routinely inspected active FSEs;
  • Developing computer modeling of at least 965 miles of sewer mains within five years (modeling was complete in 2007). The modeling will enable WSSC to: evaluate the present and future capacity requirements; plan sewer improvements; and make determinations regarding future development of the collection system;   
  • Continuing existing flow monitoring program. WSSC has 218 permanent flow monitors and 18 rain gauges that monitor flow. 

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What are the environmental projects? (Five-year implementation timeframe):

  • Enhancing existing source water protection efforts through the purchase of buffer property around WSSC's Patuxent River Reservoirs (no less than $3.29 million); WSSC has purchased three properties and obtained two conservation easements totaling over $3.39 million; this project was complete by 12/07/10;
  • Enhancing existing nitrogen reduction efforts in colder months (Oct. 15 - March 30) at WSSC's Western Branch Wastewater Treatment Plant (not to exceed $1.11 million); this project was complete by 03/31/07.

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Will the system enhancements reduce basement/building backups?

Yes, reducing backups and developing an enhanced emergency response plan are key elements of the agreement.

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Where will the work take place?

The proactive work will take place in communities throughout Montgomery and Prince George's Counties -- enhancing nearly every mile of WSSC's 5,400-mile sewer system in 24 of the 29 sewer basins serviced by WSSC. For the latest information on when and where construction activities are planned in your area, click on the interactive In Your Neighborhood Map.

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Prior to the comprehensive plan, what programs and initiatives did WSSC already have in place to minimize SSOs?

WSSC has invested and will continue to invest in proactive sewer maintenance and reconstruction programs, which are designed to prevent SSOs. The Sewer Reconstruction Program is among WSSC's proactive initiatives aimed at effectively operating and maintaining our wastewater collection system. The program encompasses comprehensive sewer basin studies and sewer main, manhole, and house connection reconstruction and replacement. It's important to note that WSSC has been actively implementing many of the action items in the SR3 agreement. The SR3 Program accelerates these actions.

WSSC has had a Fats, Oils and Grease (FOG) Program in place prior to 2007. It covered several of the necessary procedures still in place today. However, it was accomplished on a part-time basis by two inspectors and was in many cases reactionary.

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Has WSSC been able to handle the additional work outlined in this agreement?

Yes. We have enhanced our organization to meet deadlines and the workload requirements of the agreement.

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Will my rates go up because of this consent decree?

WSSC diligently works to reduce costs and work more efficiently. These efforts will offset a portion of the costs associated with the Consent Decree. However, we are unable to absorb the cost of all of the additional work that will be required, and, consequently, portions of our rate increases since FY 2005 were the result of the Consent Decree. The effect on future rate increases will be dependent upon the accuracy of estimated future Consent Decree costs. It's also important to note that most of the activities in the Consent Decree enhance existing preventive maintenance efforts, thereby saving money in the future.

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Did WSSC hire more employees to execute the system enhancement plan?

Yes. WSSC hired eight additional employees to enhance the existing Fats, Oils and Grease (FOG) program. In addition, WSSC's Systems Inspection Group has hired 24 consultant inspectors and three consultant contract managers; Systems Infrastructure has added four people and has a consultant program management team of 23 to support the consent decree. WSSC continues to evaluate other positions as needed.

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What is the FOG program?

In 1994, WSSC established the Fats, Oils and Grease (FOG) program to address grease discharged illegally or through improperly maintained grease abatement systems in applicable food service establishments.

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Will WSSC experience future SSOs?

We are optimistic that this comprehensive plan will drastically reduce, and eliminate where possible, future SSOs.

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How many SSOs did WSSC have last year?

In 2016, WSSC experienced 112 SSOs, resulting in the loss of 2,107,687 gallons.  The majority of the overflow volume during 2016 was caused by excess flow and instrumentation/mechanical failure.

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How is the overflow volume determined?

Some SSOs occur in heavily wooded areas, and are difficult to locate, contain, relieve, and inspect. WSSC personnel determine the overflow volume based on an actual measurement, an estimate using best professional judgment, or by visual observation of evidence in the overflow area (or a combination thereof).

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Do other utilities experience SSOs?

Yes. In a 2004 report to Congress on the impacts of SSOs, US EPA notes that all sanitary sewer systems have the potential to have occasional SSOs. Furthermore, US EPA estimates that between 23,000 and 75,000 SSO events occur per year in the United States, discharging a total volume of three to 10 billion gallons per year.

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How does WSSC compare nationally regarding SSO occurrences?

Based on a 2004 EPA report to Congress, WSSC is below the national average for sewer overflows.  The national average for SSOs is 4.5 per 100 miles of sewer and 28.2 per 100,000 people.  WSSC's 2016 average for SSOs is 2.1 per 100 miles of sewer and 6.2 per 100,000 people. 

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How will the enhancements affect my property?

In cases where sewer improvement activities will occur entirely within a WSSC easement, WSSC will notify adjacent property owners by mail prior to the start of the work. The notification sent by mail will include expected dates for work activities and a map showing where the work will be conducted in relation to the property owner’s land.

For properties on which access to sewer lines required lie outside of an easement, WSSC must obtain a right of entry (ROE) agreement signed by the property owner. An ROE agreement will be sent to property owners at least five months prior to the start of construction.  Accompanying the ROE agreement, will be maps and information that shows the potential access path(s) that will be used when crossing the property, expected construction activities, location of sewer lines and bypasses, WSSC easements, and other relevant information. 

Most activities will not require digging trenches to access the pipes.  Most repairs will be accessed through manholes, repairing pipes by lining the interior of the pipes with material that will be fed through the manhole. Access paths are temporary paths that will be used to gain access to the sewer line or asset and to transport equipment, material and workers. Bypass pumps and bypass lines will vary in size.  Larger pipes may require equipment to lay them on site; small bypass pipes will require only foot traffic to lay the bypass pipe along the ground. Any areas disturbed by the work and/or access path will be restored to a condition similar to how it was found.

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When will the work be done?

Improvement activities in some areas have already begun. Activities in other areas will be starting soon.  For the latest information on when and where construction activities are planned in your area, click on the interactive In Your Neighborhood Map.

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How will these enhancements benefit the community?

The enhancements conducted under the SR3 Program as a result of the Consent Decree will help improve water quality in local waterways by reducing SSOs and leaks which can cause dangerous pathogens, bacteria, and nutrients to enter local waterways. The SR3 Program will also reduce or eliminate sewer lines and manholes that are exposed by stream erosion through stream restoration projects.

The SR3 Program will also provide opportunities for increased small, minority and local business involvement in private contracting; increased employment (construction and minimal skilled labor) and local professional career opportunities; reduction in costly sewer backups caused by blocked or broken sewer lines; and the improvement in the health of many waterways.

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How will environmentally sensitive areas be protected during this work?

Environmentally sensitive areas (ESAs) are areas that include tidal and non-tidal wetlands and wetland buffers, forests, roadside trees, specimen trees, floodplains, waterways, parkland, steep slopes, historical/archaeological sites, Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bay Critical Areas, and areas with rare, threatened, and endangered species. WSSC will take measures to protect these areas and minimize any environmental impacts. For example, realigning access paths to avoid and minimize environmentally sensitive areas, keeping access path footprints as narrow as possible while preserving constructability, replanting native vegetation on access paths, and placing wetland matting to prevent soil disturbance in wetlands. WSSC is complying with all Federal, State, and local environmental regulations and working with public land managers to minimize impacts.

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Why are flags/stakes in my area?

A variety of field survey work is occurring to ensure that environmentally sensitive areas are adequately avoided. If avoidance is not possible, ESAs will be protected or restored during and after sewer improvement activities. During these surveys, you might see survey crews marking trees, posting flags, and walking around taking notes about what they find. The information collected will help WSSC make the best decisions regarding how and where construction activities are carried out. During the field survey work, crews often use a variety of flags to mark different things they are surveying. Flags placed on or around trees do not necessarily mean that those trees are slated for removal. For the latest information on when and where construction activities are planned in your area, click on the interactive In Your Neighborhood Map.

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