The Niagara Falls Water Board acknowledged Friday that the dark, foul-smelling discharge that spewed into the Niagara Gorge in late July resulted from outdated technology at its water treatment plant and "a misunderstanding" among workers.
Exacerbating the problem: the discharge into an eddy current right next to the Rainbow Bridge and the Maid of the Mist docks, the board said in a report to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
"This current technology causes difficulties in the management of sulfide generated at the plant, which can periodically result in the production of odors and wastewater which contrasts in color with the waters in the Niagara River gorge, despite the diligent efforts of the operators of the [Water Resource Recovery Facility]," according to the Water Board's statement on Friday.
The board called the July 29 black water discharge that seeped out and around the Maid of the Mist dock and ignited international outrage, "a misunderstanding between employees on duty that day."
The dark water released into the gorge that day occurred as wastewater operators were de-watering a sedimentation basin to prepare for maintenance. It occurred during dry weather.
"Verbal instructions were given at the commencement of the dewatering operation on July 29th that the 'primary' operator on duty should turn off the pump when the plant’s effluent exiting the [chlorine contact tank] became dark in color," according to the water board's statement. "The (water board) has concluded that, if these instructions had been successfully communicated and understood, the discharge of dark water from the chlorine contact tank to the plant effluent would have been minimal."
It added: "Due to a misunderstanding, this procedure was not followed and the pump was allowed to continue pumping until a significant amount of settled material had been pumped to the Niagara River."
The July 29 discharge was different from the numerous "wet weather" discharges from the outfall near the base of the American Falls that have also drawn scrutiny from the DEC.
The wet weather discharges result when rain overtaxes the aged infrastructure of Niagara Falls' sewer system and results in operators having to bypass its treatment facility and release untreated wastewater overflows, including raw sewage, directly into the Niagara River.
One of those recent events, a nearly 3 million gallon release on Aug. 15, drew a citation from the DEC for a water quality violation.
The water board offered several solutions to fix its dry-weather problem, including immediate steps that can be taken and also more drastic long-term steps. The options include moving where the water discharges from the treatment facility, a project that would cost $15 million to $20 million, or using an entirely new, aerobic biological treatment process, which could cost more than $100 million.
Immediate steps include:
- Implement new procedures for emptying or dewatering any basin or tank in the future In addition, to improve routine operations
- Improving the treatment facility's sludge removal capacity
- Raising or modifying a pump
DEC officials confirmed receipt of the report from the Niagara Falls Water Board on Friday, but didn't offer many immediate comments about its contents.
"As part of the state’s ongoing investigation directed by Governor Cuomo into the July 29 black water discharge into the lower Niagara River, DEC has received the consultant report from the Niagara Falls Water Board regarding the incident," according to a DEC statement. "DEC is thoroughly reviewing this report while we complete our investigation and determine appropriate actions to address this incident."
Just after the incident, DEC officials said the discharge "clearly violated water quality standards."