Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo unleashed a torrent of criticism Thursday upon the Niagara Falls Water Board for its recent sewage and wastewater discharges into the Niagara River.
Cuomo cited the Water Board for a "lack of training, lack of systems, lack of processes," and he called the board's operational violations "inexcusable."
The state Department of Environmental Conservation levied a $50,000 penalty against the Water Board for the discharges and wants the board to sign an order agreeing to fix its problems, officials said.
The proposed order would forbid the Water Board from making any more black sediment discharges into the Niagara River and would require:
- DEC supervision when making any discharges from its plant;
- an upgrade to its operating policies and protocols;
- re-training for all of its employees;
- and, an update to its training materials to ensure protocols are followed.
"We can conclude the Niagara Falls Water Board is responsible for a number of operating deficiencies, which led to human errors and led to the black water discharge on July 29 violating water quality standards," said Kenneth Lynch, executive deputy commissioner of the DEC.
Cuomo said that's why the DEC "is not trusting them to do any more discharges on their own."
"Real damage was done here," Cuomo said Thursday at the Niagara Gorge Discovery Center.
The Water Board released a statement indicating it hasn't yet been able to review the draft consent order and so couldn't comment on it.
"However, the board does look forward to assessing the documents and will subsequently work with the DEC to improve plant performance and prevent any re-occurrences," the statement said.
"We have always been and remain committed to doing everything possible with the technology in place to safeguard the natural beauty of the Niagara River and to comply with and exceed wherever possible all environmental rules, standards and permits," the Water Board said. "We will continue to work with DEC in the coming weeks and months, and expect to engage in ongoing, collaborative dialogue regarding the terms of the draft consent order to maximize the environmental benefits of any improvements made."
Cuomo called the incident "a terrible breakdown" in the operation at the Niagara Falls wastewater treatment plant.
"And I want the Water Board to know in no uncertain terms, this will not be tolerated," Cuomo said.
The DEC strongly criticized the Water Board for an Aug. 15 discharge blamed on a heavy thunderstorm. Like many other sewer systems in the state, Niagara Falls has a system in which storm sewage from rain or melting snow and sanitary sewage from sinks and toilets become combined in the same pipe.
Wet weather can lead to combined sewer overflows, which happen when the water coming into the system is beyond the sewage plant's capacity to handle it.
But the July 29 black water discharge, which produced a viral video that gave Niagara Falls tourism a worldwide black eye, was not caused by the weather.
The Water Board has said that a supervisor left another worker alone during the drainage of a sediment basin in the sewer plant, and the unattended worker let the pump run too long, causing the water to be discolored.
Lynch said this incident violated state water quality standards.
"This discharge, coupled with additional combined sewer overflow incidents, constitutes a violation of state law, state regulations and the facility's operating permit," Lynch told reporters.
The investigation of the incident is continuing, based on a Sept. 1 report from the Water Board to the DEC, and officials said the exact terms of the consent order are still being negotiated.
Cuomo threatened that if the Water Board doesn't sign the DEC's consent order and pay the $50,000 fine, its operators "will be removed."
The governor pointed out that tourists come to Niagara Falls to see nature, but the black-water discharge that drew international headlines this summer is "the exact opposite of everything we've been working on for years."
"I think the governor got it right," Niagara Falls Mayor Paul A. Dyster said. "When you have an image like this that travels around the world in just a few minutes, there's a danger it can damage all of the good work that you've been doing."
Two new members joined the Water Board early this year, one chosen by Dyster and the other by the City Council. Their arrival created a new Democratic majority that ousted the board's entire top management in February and brought in new executives.
But, the mayor said they don't bear the blame for the illegal discharges.
"Many of the things outlined in this report were things they were trying to change in their first months on the job. Obviously, they didn't get there by July 29," Dyster said.
Dyster said any training deficiencies can be addressed fairly soon, while the long-term question of doing away with combined sewer overflows will be addressed when funding is available.
Brian Smith, associate executive director for Citizens Campaign for the Environment, commended the state's action.
"Our water is our region's greatest natural resource," Smith said. "When negligence leads to the unnecessary fouling of our waters, those responsible must be held accountable."
Smith added that the Niagara Falls incidents are symptoms of even larger problems with wastewater infrastructure that need to be addressed on both the state and federal levels.
"We can no longer accept the status quo of allowing sewage to foul our Great Lakes on a regular basis," Smith said. "The solutions to our sewage infrastructure needs may be expensive, but when it comes to clean water, we can't afford not to make the investment."
Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper concurred.
"We completely support this action and share the frustration expressed by the governor and this community," said Jill Jedlicka, Waterkeeper's executive director. "This action and required operation improvements will get us one step closer to a time when we stop discharging sewage waste into our drinking water resources."
The Niagara Falls Water Board said earlier this month 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 was 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.
The incident shocked onlookers and immediately drew the ire of Cuomo and the DEC.
"This had nothing to do with the condition of the plant," Cuomo said Thursday. "To say, 'This is an old plant,' is baloney. This was operator error."
That high-profile incident came on top of another problem in Niagara Falls: the overflows of sewage and stormwater into the Niagara River and Cayuga Creek during heavy rains.
In 19 overflows in Niagara Falls, more than 150 million gallons of sewage and stormwater poured into Cayuga Creek and the Niagara River between May 1 and July 31. Five of them sent 125 million gallons from the Falls Street outfall near the American Falls.
So far this month, there have been no discharges reported from the Falls Street outfall despite four sewage overflows at its Gorge Pump Station.
Those overflows, north of the Rainbow Bridge near the Whirlpool, occurred on Sept. 3, 4, 5 and 7, according to the NY-Alert notification system.
An estimated 670,000 gallons of untreated sewage and stormwater was discharged, the state reports showed.