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Editorial: Falls Water Board must get a handle on its procedures and discharges

“Misunderstandings” like this should never happen. Managers of large and complex operations put systems in place to promote efficiency and prevent accidents such as occurred in Niagara Falls a little over a month ago.

Yet, a misunderstanding, together with outdated technology, is what the Niagara Falls Water Board blames for the global embarrassment that happened when foul-smelling black sludge was emptied into the Niagara River near the base of one of the world’s most iconic tourist attractions.

The release occurred as workers were de-watering a sedimentation basin, part of a maintenance procedure. The problem was that instead of following a practiced, detailed protocol, the operator at fault was given verbal instructions that were not followed.

The board concluded: “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.”

That’s the first place for the board to regroup. It is preposterous to rely on verbal instructions when carrying out a procedure where the penalty for failure is so high. Systems are intrinsic to business. They help to prevent errors and produce consistency: think fast-food franchises.

In an operation as large and expensive as the Niagara Falls Water Board, it is indefensible not to have created and implemented systems for predictable procedures such as the Water Board undertook in late July.

To its credit, it is proposing to establish new procedures for emptying or dewatering any basin or tank. It should examine other operations where established procedures would bolster safety and efficiency.

The board also cited dated technology as part of the problem and recommended potential solutions. They are not inexpensive and will need to be closely evaluated, but they include:

• Moving where the water discharges from the treatment facility, costing $15 million to $20 million.

• Using a new, aerobic biological treatment process, which could cost more than $100 million.

The good news is that state money could be available for such projects. As part of the 2017-18 budget, Albany approved a $2.5 billion measure to promote clean water in New York. Of that total, $1.5 billion will be directed to local government to improve water infrastructure.

That’s what Niagara Falls needs, and not just because of the black water dump. Like other areas around Western New York, the water treatment plant also discharges untreated sewage when rainfall overtaxes the city’s sewer system.

Such incidents have occurred several times recently, including on Aug. 15, when nearly 3 million gallons were released, prompting a citation from the state Department of Environmental Conservation for a water quality violation.

Such overflows periodically occur in Erie County as well, resulting in water degradation and closed beaches on Lake Erie. Old and insufficient infrastructure is to blame. That’s part of what the state’s new clean water fund needs to address.

Water is this region’s most copious and valuable natural resource. It needs to be protected. That requires implementing procedures that prevent misunderstandings and upgrading infrastructure to keep the water supply clean. Both are doable.

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