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CCE IN THE NEWS

Source: Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

Sewage release reports improve, more work needed

130 million gallons spilled since May.

BY STEVE ORR
STAFF WRITER

Posted: February 17, 2014
Originally Published: February 16, 2014

More than 1,250 unauthorized sewage releases have fouled New York waterways with 130 million gallons of waste since a state disclosure law went into effect last May.

But those figures badly understate both the real number of events and the volume of waste discharged — because many sewer-system operators can't measure how much raw or partly treated sewage they're releasing, and others don't report releases at all.

The reports are made pursuant to the Sewage Pollution Right-to-Know Act, which was adopted in response to complaints that swimmers, paddlers and other water users rarely knew whether they were being exposed to potentially harmful discharges from local sewage systems.

Many of the complaints came from the Buffalo area, New York City and Long Island, where antiquated systems or overburdened treatment plants frequently foul waterways. Monroe County has a more modern, and presumably less worrisome, system.

Indeed, more than half of all the reports made under the act so far — a total of 658 through mid-February — came from Erie County. Only nine sewage discharges were reported in Monroe County, and 34 in the six-county Rochester region.

Officials at the state Department of Environmental Conservation, which implemented the first part of the law May 1, say many municipal plant operators are making a good-faith effort to comply.

"DEC is pleased with the rate of response from our public wastewater system owners and operators," spokeswoman Lisa King said.

But one shortcoming of the system is underlined by the fact that only about 20 percent of the discharge reports included any estimate of the quantity of sewage that was release. The amount matters — some releases involve only a few gallons, while others number gallons by the million.

Of the reports that did provide a quantity, the largest was 21 million gallons released into the Mohawk River in June in Oneida County. All told, 24 reported releases were of 1 million gallons or more.

The law requires operators to report the quantity of waste they've released — if they're equipped to measure it. But many of them simply don't have that equipment, and the law doesn't require them to procure it.

Brian Smith, program manager for Citizens Campaign for the Environment, which lobbied hard for the law, said that needs to change.

"CCE believes that the amount of sewage discharged is critical to the spirit and intent of the law," he said.


Smith praised DEC for improving its dissemination of the information submitted by operators. Last spring, the DEC was only updating a website that listed discharge events once a week or so, but the agency now updates the list daily.

King said DEC also plans to use a system known as NY-ALERT to send emails or text messages about discharges directly to people who sign up to receive them.

It appears one type of release, those from combined sewer systems, are being reported inconsistently. Combined systems collect both sanitary sewage and rainwater that enters storm drains, and they often overflow after heavy rains.

State officials say only some combined-sewer overflows had to be reported, though King said the DEC is working to increase the reporting rate.

Smith, whose group has met with DEC about implementation of the law, said CCE was lobbying the state Legislature to appropriate $500,000 to go toward monitoring or creation of models that could estimate the size of discharges.

"This would provide the public with the information necessary to avoid contact with dangerous sewage pollution when they are fishing, swimming or boating," he said.


The city of Rochester has combined sewers, but Monroe County, which handles most wastewater collection and treatment countywide, used then-plentiful federal and state aid to built vast stormwater storage tunnels decades ago. As a result, combined-sewer overflows have been mostly eliminated here.

In the DEC data, the county reported just four discharges. One was a combined sewer overflow of 300,000 gallons into a creek that flows into Irondequoit Bay caused by a heavy rainfall in August.

The town of Farmington in Ontario County listed seven discharges, all but two of them occurring during a period of heavy rain in June. The Wayne County villages of Palmyra and Lyons listed four and three discharges respectively. The Livingston County Water & Sewer Authority plant in Lakeville also had three discharges.

Among Monroe suburbs that operate their own collection systems, Penfield reported two discharges and Brighton and Greece one each.

That's a far cry from the town of Cheektowaga, Erie County, which reported 300 releases, or nearly a quarter of the entire state's total.

The town engineer, William Pugh, said Cheektowaga's sanitary sewer system consists of aging clay tile pipes with joints every few feet.

Rainwater and melted snow seep into the pipes and when they fill, they overflow into local creeks. "It's wet-weather impact," Pugh said. "Let's face it, these pipelines are 60-some-years old."