Empowering Communities, Advocating Solutions


Source: Long Island Business News

Esposito: Let us know


Posted: June 8, 2012
Originally Published: June 7, 2012

We may live in the 21st century, but much of New York’s sewer systems were designed for the 19th century. Heavy rain and snowmelt can overwhelm aging and failing sewage infrastructure, resulting in raw or partially treated sewage being released in our environment before it reaches a treatment plant.

In 2011, New York broke records for precipitation, which in turn resulted in billions of gallons of sewage being dumped into water bodies from the Great Lakes to Long Island Sound. And yet, the public is ill-informed of when or where these overflows occur.

Sewage overflows contaminate waterways and our communities with dangerous pathogens that put our health at risk. E. coli and salmonella are common bacteria found in raw sewage, along with parasites, and even viruses such as hepatitis. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, between 1.8 million and 3.5 million Americans become ill annually from contact with recreational waters contaminated by sewage. Bacteria from untreated sewage also contaminate our fisheries, making fish unsafe to eat.

Currently, no state or federal policies are in place requiring notification to residents when dangerous sewage overflows occur. People can often be seen swimming, fishing or boating in waters that have recently been contaminated with sewage. In this case, ignorance isn’t bliss, ignorance is dangerous.

During an extreme rain event last August, there was a raw sewage backup into the homes and streets on Barns Avenue in Baldwin. Manholes, which were bolted down, lifted several inches above the ground as raw sewage pushed through the road, onto lawns, in gardens, through basements. Ultimately, sewage discharged into the local creek. Neighbors, unaware of the overflow, were found crabbing in the creek the next day.

The Sewage Pollution Right to Know Act, sponsored by Sen. Mark Grisanti and Assemblyman Bob Sweeney, is a common-sense piece of legislation that would provide the public with the right to know when and where sewage overflows occur. Timely information on sewage spills will allow the public to avoid unnecessary exposure to harmful untreated sewage.

The public deserves the right to know when sewage overflows occur, and the state Legislature has a responsibility to enact policies that protect the health and safety of its constituents. The Connecticut Legislature just passed a similar bill this session, joining more than a dozen states with such legislation.

The New York Assembly recently passed the act, and the Senate is poised to support a similar version. However, the Assembly and the Senate need to work together to agree upon one version of the bill so that it can become law. It’s a simple concept with a meaningful impact and genuine benefit to the public.

Esposito is executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment.