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Buffalo sewer project that aims to control overflows alarms neighborhood

Imagine an underground cesspool of thousands of gallons of raw sewage in your neighborhood, filling up when heavy rains hit.

The tank, a few feet beneath the surface, is fed by pipes more than a century old.

What happens if those old pipes fail? Will the sewage back up into area basements and flood streets?

That’s the fear of residents of Bird Avenue in the city’s West Side, where the Buffalo Sewer Authority is building a storage tank the width of the street – and about one-third of a block long – for untreated sewage collected when rains overload the sewer system.

There are plans for the retention of thousands of gallons of sewage just below the ground during heavy rains in 15 other areas throughout the city as part of the $380 million project, including along the majority of Hertel Avenue. Bird Avenue, between Hoyt and Parkdale, is under construction, though the plans for in-line storage of sewer waste stretches east on Bird to Delaware Avenue.

The authority’s plan, of which Bird Avenue is just a part, aims to prevent millions of gallons of untreated sewage from making its way to the Niagara River. Residents agree that something needs to be done, but they worry that the project was not subject to sufficient environmental reviews and that those old sewer lines will fail, leaving a smelly neighborhood and backed-up basements.

“The understanding was that there would be due diligence and that a study would be done to make sure that we weren’t impacted,” said Karyn Brady, who lives on Bird. “I understand that for the lakes there will be no adverse impact. That’s great. But I have to live on Bird Avenue.”

Bird Avenue resident Charley Tarr, a community activist, is scheduled to appear in State Supreme Court today to ask a judge to halt construction. Tarr does not have a lawyer and has raised money from neighbors to file the case.

The Sewer Authority’s plan – which calls for retaining household and commercial waste in existing sewer lines, some built in the late 19th century – might not have any ill effects, but a full environmental review should be done to ensure that, Tarr said.

He said an environmental review of the plan in 2012 came before the final design was complete for retention projects on Bird and Lang avenues, where gates will be installed to keep sewage inside the sewer lines or the tank during heavy rains.

“I get that we have to do retention,” Tarr said. “Let’s do it correctly.”

The Sewer Authority has filed a motion to dismiss his complaint.

The authority has put out a fact sheet about its project and presented details to the city’s Environmental Management Commission.

Similar projects have been done in other parts of the country, authority officials say.

“This is not new. This is not experimental,” said Oluwole A. McFoy, the authority’s principal sanitary engineer. “This is tried-and-true technology that we’re utilizing here.”

The authority maintains that the project received sufficient environmental review and that its project has the support of the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The work will not cause basement backups or flooded streets, officials said.

Like many cities, Buffalo has a combined sewer system, in which stormwater and household and commercial waste flow into the same sewer mains. During heavy rain or when snow melts, the system can be overwhelmed, and the resulting contents of the combined system cannot be treated at the sewage treatment plant on Bird Island, leaving some waste to flow untreated into the Black Rock Channel, Erie Basin, the Buffalo River and nearby creeks. An estimated 1.75 billion gallons of combined sewage overflow empties into the Niagara River and its tributaries every year, and the authority aims to lower that by 70 percent through the underground retention tanks and other projects.

Cities with combined sewers have had to make changes to comply with provisions in the Clean Water Act, and major sewer improvements have been done or are underway all across the country.

The project includes tanks, typically made of concrete, along existing sewer lines to maximize storage volume and prevent overflows into nearby waterways. The tanks won’t be visible above ground and will run the width of the street. Gates will prevent as much of the overflow as possible without backing up upstream sewers, according to the authority. Once the rain has subsided, the waste is released in a controlled way so that it can be treated.

The authority determined the project would not adversely impact the environment.

But Tarr said the analysis did not evaluate the impact of the in-line retention system – where waste is held in the sewer mains during the rain until it can be properly treated – on the neighborhoods where it will be built. The projects on Bird and Lang were not fully designed when the authority declared the entire project would not have an impact on the environment, Tarr said.

Tarr is not opposed to retaining the sewage before it can be released. But in other cities where similar projects have been done, he said, new sewers were built 350 feet below ground, while the Buffalo sewers are only 10 feet below ground. On Bird, the sewers are brick and date back to the late 1800s.

The authority said that the age of the sewers do not impact their performance and that the project is designed to prevent backups into basements.

State environmental review laws “do not require environmental review of sewer upgrade projects, such as are involved here,” according to the authority’s court papers.

The authority did not perform a full environmental impact statement and instead determined that the project would have no significant environmental impacts.

The authority’s “negative declaration” states that construction projects and other actions called for in the Long Term Control Plan would be subject to further environmental reviews when they are defined and designed.

The negative declaration is limited solely to elements of the Long Term Control Plan that are “established and finalized,” according to the authority.

While Bird Avenue and Hagen Street are mentioned in the authority’s review, Tarr maintains the review was prepared before the projects there were fully designed.

He said, for example, that the East Side project was later moved from Hagen to Lang.

The authority calls the Bird and Lang work “demonstration” projects, the first two of 16 that will eventually be built across the city.

The Bird and Lang projects will help the authority learn how to operate the gates and determine where others should be placed.

Tarr worries the authority’s efforts to clean the mains won’t be sufficient and that toxic material will build up on the walls of the mains as material is retained during periods of heavy rain.

Authority officials say that waste will not sit in the mains longer than 24 hours and that the gates will always allow some flow, even during heavy rains or snow melt, to prevent sediment from collecting.

Tarr questioned what will happen if wet weather lasts longer than 24 hours.

The city’s Environmental Management Commission is preparing an opinion on the project at the request of the Common Council. But so far, Joseph Gardella, the commission’s chairman, has said Tarr’s claim that construction has released “toxic odors” from the old sewer line is an exaggeration that unnecessarily alarms his neighbors.

Tarr asked the Council to join the lawsuit, though it has not.

The Sewer Authority’s entire project, approved by federal and state agencies in March, has a completion deadline of 2034. The Sewer Authority is under a legal order from the EPA to comply with the Clean Water Act.