Millions of gallons of raw sewage at falls? Blame the rain - The Buffalo News

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Millions of gallons of raw sewage at falls? Blame the rain

Nearly 3 million gallons of untreated sewage and stormwater were discharged near the base of the American Falls on Tuesday, according to estimates published by the NY-Alert system.

The release came from the same outfall that emitted a stinky, black discharge late last month, but this time it's believed to have been caused by heavy rainfall.

That's just this week's portion.

Before Tuesday's discharge, data obtained under the state's Sewage Right-to-Know Law shows at least 14 previous overflows from that same location near the base of the American Falls dating back to last September.

Those overflows accounted for more than 306 million gallons of untreated sewage and stormwater being released at that outfall. That's enough to fill roughly 464 Olympic-size swimming pools.

Like Tuesday, in each of those events, wet weather and an insufficient capacity of Niagara Falls' combined sewer system led to the overflows.

Kenneth Lynch, executive deputy commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, told reporters Wednesday that Niagara Falls has one of the many sewer systems in the state that combines stormwater runoff and "sanitary sewage" from sinks and toilets in the same mains.

"When we get heavy rains, the load from the storm system combines with the sanitary system and sometimes overflows the system," Lynch said. "Those happen, depending on weather occurrences, on a systematical basis throughout the year."

Rolfe Porter, executive director of the Niagara Falls Water Board, which operates the treatment plant, issued a statement Wednesday evening noting that overflow is allowed under a state permit whenever the plant gets too much water to process.

"The NFWB permit takes into account the design limitations of the existing wastewater treatment plant, which has a filtering capacity of 60 million gallons per day," Porter said in the statement.

"The team is currently looking at the actual amount and volume that entered the system on Aug. 15 in order to get a full and accurate calculation," Porter added. "As was discussed with the DEC, our organization continues to look at potential updates and improvements that could enhance our filtering capacity."

The DEC, at the direction of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, still wants answers, but Lynch said it appears that Tuesday's occurrence had no connection to the July 29 blackwater discharge that gave Niagara Falls a worldwide black eye.

"We do not have any indication that the events on the 29th were tied to what happened (Tuesday) with the overflow, but again, we are investigating that to determine and make sure that they aren't linked and make sure the (Niagara Falls) Water Board is doing everything they can to minimize overflows to the river," Lynch said.

Lynch said that the proximity in time between the July 29 incident and Tuesday's sewage release played a role in generating a closer look by the DEC.

"There were initial reports there was some color in this discharge," Lynch said. "That has not been verified."

Lynch added: "We will, going forward, be watching this plant to make sure it's managed effectively."

DEC officials said the Sewage Right-to-Know data is reported from municipal wastewater operators to the state's emergency alert system for public protection.

Officials said the agency does not independently verify all of the reports made by municipalities.

Five of those 14 reports over the last year came last month alone and accounted for about 125.8 million gallons of sewage being released to the Niagara River, the data shows.

Those included:

  • July 27: 1.19 million gallons
  • July 23: 1.42 million gallons
  • July 20: 3.45 million gallons
  • July 17: 119.8 million gallons in two separate releases

The widely reported July 29 discharge of the black substance was not included in the list.

DEC officials are probing why it wasn't reported as part of their ongoing investigation into the incident.

At a news conference overlooking the Niagara Gorge, Lynch said the DEC was concerned about the overflows, which are common on days of heavy rain. He said they need to be "limited and controlled to the extent possible."

"We're not aware of any significant danger," Lynch said.

"There is a long-term control plan for the plant that defines what they can and cannot handle as far as flows," Lynch said. "Recent and extended past history will be looked at to determine what's happening here, is there appropriate capacity, and if not, what upgrades are necessary to address the issues."

A Water Board spokesman said its state permit "takes into account the design limitations of the existing wastewater treatment plant, which has a capacity of 60 million gallons a day."

The spokesman said the plant was designed for an average flow of 48 million gallons a day.

"Anything above 60 million bypasses the carbon filters. Currently the average flow is about 23 million gallons per day," he said.

DEC officials are specifically probing whether Tuesday's release resulted from heavy thunderstorms inundating Niagara Falls' combined sewer system and resulting in the overflow of untreated sewage, or whether "it is part of a larger issue" with the city's wastewater treatment plant.

"There's a number of things that can be done for combined sewer overflows, whether it be sewer separation, storage, green infrastructure. There's a lot of different options," Lynch said.

The alert published by the state Tuesday shows more than 2.8 million gallons of untreated sewage was released. (NY-Alert)

According to the state's alert system under the Sewage Right-to-Know Law, the City of Niagara Falls reported that "insufficient system capacity" resulted in a trio of wastewater overflows Tuesday.

Besides the release from the Falls Street outfall near the Observation Deck adjacent to the American Falls, the two others were at the Gorge Pump Station into the Niagara River and at another outfall into Cayuga Creek.

The report stated the discharge from the Falls Street outfall lasted about four hours.

It's not uncommon during times of heavy rain for sewage to overflow from Niagara Falls' combined sewer system for which it's under order to fix.

DEC officials toured the city's wastewater plant again Wednesday, something they've done regularly since the incident July 29.

Ken Lynch of the DEC addresses the media on Tuesday afternoon near the Niagara Gorge. (T.J. Pignataro/Buffalo News)

Meanwhile, the DEC investigation also continues into the July 29 incident that garnered worldwide attention.

The Water Board recently hired a firm to probe what caused the oily, black discharge that fouled the lower river near the falls.

Niagara Falls Water Board hires firm to probe black water discharge

DEC officials said that was at the agency's direction in order to satisfy a Sept. 1 deadline to produce a full report on the incident.

That report, when finalized, will be part of the DEC's broader investigation in its determination of whether fines, penalties or other sanctions on Niagara Falls' wastewater plant is warranted.

In the days following the incident, DEC officials said the July discharge "clearly violated water quality standards."

DEC: Niagara Falls discharge 'clearly violated water quality standards'

The Water Board's Aug. 4 public statement on the issue blamed the July 29 discharge on a worker leaving his post while the pump was emptying a basin, causing the water to overflow a chlorine treatment tank and run into the river.

"At this time, we have no reason to disbelieve it, and we have no reason to believe it. These things all have to be corroborated and verified," said Niagara Falls Police Superintendent E. Bryan DalPorto, whose department has joined the DEC in investigating the incident.

"We need to verify what they are claiming and do our own independent fact-finding," Lynch said. "I'm not going to make any conclusions until we fully investigate."

The DEC gave the Water Board a Sept. 1 deadline to submit a full report on the blackwater incident, and Lynch said the DEC would draw its conclusions shortly after that.

"We also directed them to take steps to prevent that incident from reoccurring, which we believe they have done," Lynch said.

There is no specific deadline yet to report on Tuesday's overflow.

"That is a more routine reporting," Lynch said.

Last week, Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman said his office is also keeping tabs on developments in the case.

“Niagara Falls is the crown jewel of our state’s environmental landmarks and any unexplained, and potentially dangerous discharge must be fully investigated and pursued to the fullest extent of the law," Schneiderman said. "My office has been in close contact with the Department of Environmental Conservation and stands ready to assist with DEC’s investigation in whatever way  possible.”

Typically, cases by the attorney general are brought on behalf of the DEC once the agency completes an investigation, officials said.

News Staff Reporter Dale Anderson contributed to this report.

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