We may live in the 21st century, but much of New York's sewer system was 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, causing billions of gallons of sewage to be 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. E. coli and salmonella are common types of bacteria found in raw sewage, along with parasites, and even viruses such as hepatitis. According to the 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.
There are no state or federal policies in place in New York that require 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.
The Buffalo sewer system releases approximately 4 billion gallons of raw or partially treated sewage into local waterways annually. While the Buffalo Sewer Authority is working to eliminate the cause of the problem in the long term, protections must also be afforded to the public in order to avoid unnecessary exposure to harmful pollution now.
The Sewage Pollution Right to Know Act (S.6268 / A.9420), which is sponsored by Sen. Mark J. Grisanti, R-Buffalo, and Assemblyman Robert K. Sweeney, chairman of the Assembly Environmental Conservation Committee, is a common-sense measure that would inform the public when and where sewage overflows occur. Timely information on sewage spills will allow the public to avoid unnecessary exposure to harmful untreated sewage.
As spring turns to summer, New Yorkers are eager to spend time enjoying the great outdoors. However, a trip to one's favorite fishing spot or much-loved beach should not unknowingly become a trip to the emergency room. The public deserves the right to know when sewage overflows occur, and state legislators have a responsibility to enact policies that protect the health and safety of their constituents.
The Connecticut legislature already passed a similar bill, joining more than a dozen states with such legislation. The New York State Assembly recently passed the Sewage Pollution Right to Know Act unanimously; the State Senate should follow suit. It's a simple concept with a meaningful impact and genuine benefit to the public.
Brian P. Smith is program and communications director for Citizens Campaign for the Environment.