Either a failed valve or a worker leaving a pump on too long caused the discharge of smelly, black sludge into the Niagara River last Saturday, a Niagara Falls Water Board spokesman said Thursday.
Except for the inky color, the discharge is part of the normal operations of the plant, the spokesman said.
In other developments Thursday:
- Niagara Falls Mayor Paul A. Dyster revealed a police investigation on top of the state Department of Environmental Conservation probe into the incident;
- Republicans in the Niagara County Legislature said they plan to pass resolutions at a special session next week calling for the whole board to resign and for the top executives to be replaced;
- Assemblyman Angelo J. Morinello blamed personnel changes earlier this year in which "inexperienced people were brought in who don't have the proper training."
“Now is not the time to play politics," Dyster said in a short statement. "Saturday’s incident is a serious matter and one that is actively being investigated by Niagara Falls Police and the Department of Environmental Conservation. Rather than politicize the issue, I would encourage my colleagues in government to allow the investigation to run its full course before assigning blame.”
Workers clean out the carbon beds that purify sewage about twice a year by backflushing them, the board spokesman said.
So the work that happened Saturday has been done before.
"Everything that happened is stuff that's always been done in the past," said James M. Perry, the board's administrative services director and human resources manager. "The issue is the color. The way it discolored the water was not a usual occurrence. Usually what happens, is they backflush to a certain level, and when the water starts to discolor, they stop pumping."
After that happens, a contractor then vacuums out the rest of the material trapped in the carbon beds and a maintenance crew is able to work on them, Perry said.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation has sent a team of investigators to pore through records and inspect the source of the now infamous discharge – the Niagara Falls wastewater treatment plant. One agency official described what’s underway as a “wholesale” examination of the facility’s operation.
"We are at an early stage of the inquiry. We have not yet drawn conclusions as to every aspect under consideration," Daniel T. O'Callaghan, the Water Board chairman, said at a news conference. "Similarly, there will be measures taken up with regulatory bodies, which it is too early to comment on."
Niagara Falls Police Superintendent E. Bryan DalPorto said he has assigned a captain to work with the DEC on the investigation into how the release occurred.
"It is clear to us that as a result of possible human error, possible mechanical malfunction, a large quantity of water from the sediment tank was released into the Niagara River, and that wasn't supposed to happen," O'Callaghan said.
The timing of the discharge — a late Saturday afternoon during the summer tourist season — couldn't have been worse.
"It happened in the middle of the day when a lot of tourists were there," Perry said. "It does not have a pleasant odor to it because it comes through the sewerage lines."
Perry said the staff originally planned to do the work on Friday night, but a staffing shortage resulted in it being pushed back to Saturday afternoon.
John J. Ottaviano, who was fired in February after 10 years as the board's attorney, said that for such a smelly emission to have occurred, someone would have had to bypass one of the treatment tanks at the sewage plant and pump sewage sludge into the last tank that discharges into the river.
"Carbon wouldn't leave that foul smell and discoloration," Ottaviano said.
"It could not happen by accident," Ottaviano charged. "Someone had to have done it. It couldn't flow there naturally."
Perry called the attorney's allegation "kind of cheap."
"He's not in operations, so how can he specifically say something like that?" Perry said.
Morinello blamed the debacle on changes put in place in the spring when three Democrats on the five-member water board fired the agency's top management.
"Inexperienced people were brought in who don't have the proper training," Morinello said. "This incident has to have happened because of inexperience somewhere...At this point, it's kind of like a criminal case. There's allegation without documentation."
On Feb. 23, Paul J. Drof, the executive director, was fired. So was Norman D. Allen, the infrastructure and operations director, and Anthony M. Hahn, the administrative services director. All had time remaining on their contracts.
Rolfe Porter replaced Drof.
Perry replaced Hahn.
But no one officially replaced Allen, although Joseph LaGamba, the longtime chief operator of the sewer plant, served for a time as operations and maintenance manager.
"There was pretty much what I would call a political coup," said Gretchen M. Leffler, a retired American Cancer Society regional vice president, who was replaced by O'Callaghan as chairman.
Asked if the executive turnover had anything to do with Saturday's inky discharge, Perry said, "That had nothing to do with it at all."
"I wouldn't think so," Leffler said. "Rolfe is a professional in his field."
Porter has extensive experience in government water systems. He was assistant water commissioner in Cleveland for 15 years, worked six years as executive engineer at the Erie County Water Authority and was an operations manager at water systems in Georgia and Pennsylvania.
The sewage incident has put the board in the spotlight.
Niagara County Legislature Republicans plan to hold a special session next week to pass resolutions calling for the whole board to resign and for the top executives to be replaced.
The Republicans also want a criminal probe of the discharge.
The Legislature has no authority to do any of that, since it has no role in the board's appointment or operations.
There are five members on the Water Board, each appointed by a different public official or entity. Dyster and the Niagara Falls City Council appointed new members earlier this year.
Dyster appointed O'Callaghan in February. The Council chose Nicholas J. Forster, the Niagara County Democratic Party chairman, in January.
They joined former Democratic County Legislator Renae Kimble to form a three-member working majority. The other members said Thursday that they have been frozen out of the agency's inner workings.
"There's been a bloc with Danny O'Callaghan, Nick Forster and Renae Kimble, so both myself and Colleen Larkin, the newest member of the board, pretty much are left out in the dark on everything," said Leffler, who said she was appointed to the board by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo at the recommendation of Dyster.
Larkin, put on the board in April by State Sen. Robert G. Ortt, said the only information she received about the discharge came from the same two news releases issued to the media.
"I have no real information at all," Larkin said. "I appreciate transparency. Right now, I don't have all the facts."
"They can get no information," said Morinello. "They're left out in the cold. They inquire and they can get no information from the board majority."
Morinello said at a news conference Thursday that he'd like to replace Kimble, who holds the Assembly seat. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie makes the appointment based on the recommendation of the Assembly member representing Niagara Falls.
Morinello said he wants to appoint Daniel Weiss, chairman of the Niagara County Conservative Party, but it's unclear whether Kimble is a holdover or has time left on a term to which she was appointed by former Assemblyman John D. Ceretto.
Leffler sent letters to Cuomo and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman after the "coup," accusing the Democratic bloc of violating Open Meetings Law by huddling separately without telling the other board members or notifying the media. She also noted that the new executives were interviewed and hired without notice that the jobs were open.
The letter charged that the unions who represent Water Board workers, who had been working without a contract for seven years, increased their pay demands after Forster and O'Callaghan joined the board. In April, three unions received new seven-year contracts with annual 1.5 percent pay raises.
"We on the board have worked very hard to make this organization better," O'Callaghan said at a news conference, during which he did not answer questions. Kimble and Forster did not return calls Thursday.