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More sewers overflow in Erie County than any other part of New York

Nearly 6 of every 10 sanitary sewer overflows reported in New York State occur in Erie County, according to a report released Thursday by Environmental Advocates of New York.

The environmental advocacy group revealed the statistic on a day that saw a steady influx of overflow reports from area sewage operators in towns such as Cheektowaga, Tonawanda, West Seneca and Hamburg as rain fell in the morning and afternoon.

The advocacy group pointed out that underreporting of overflows in other parts of the state accounts for a part of the imbalance.

Wastewater operators here seem more likely than their counterparts elsewhere in New York to comply with reporting under the state’s 2012 Sewage Pollution Right to Know Act, said Liz Moran, Environmental Advocates’ water and natural resources associate and author of the study.

“We see this as Western New York is doing a good job in making sure these sewer overflow events are reported,” Moran said. “There’s tremendous disparity between what’s in the (Right-to-Know) database and what’s actually taking place.”

New York City lands on the other end of the spectrum. It discharges an estimated 28 billion gallons of sewage into New York Harbor, but the state database reveals only 563,910 gallons of that – roughly two-thousandths of a percent.

When sewage overflow reports are made, the public is more likely to learn about it and avoid those areas.

That’s the purpose of the law, Moran said.

The Albany-based environmental watchdog organization analyzed data from the Right to Know Act to come up with its findings in the report “Tapped Out.”

The group was cautious not to blame either the state Department of Environmental Conservation or wastewater operators. But it cited a lack of infrastructure improvements and insufficient DEC enforcement personnel as problems.

“There are significant public health consequences that could come from exposure to sewage overflows,” Moran said.

The report highlights Buffalo, pointing out that “it has been estimated that as much as 4 billion gallons is discharged into local waterbodies” every year and that “58 percent of all reported sewage overflows statewide come from just Erie County.”

The study counted 1,825 sewage overflows reported between 2013 and 2015 in Western New York, accounting for 56.9 million gallons spilled into area creeks, streams and lakes.

The environmental group recommended several steps to improve the situation in New York.

They include increasing DEC funding for better enforcement of environmental laws, eliminating reporting exemptions, and notifying all communities potentially affected by overflows.

It also recommended that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and state lawmakers make permanent the Infrastructure Investment Act created last June and fund it at an annual rate of no less than $800 million.

“This is really a funding issue,” Moran said.

Joseph L. Fiegl, an Erie County deputy commissioner for sewerage management, said that there’s “a tremendous need to invest in wastewater infrastructure.”

Some of that is underway. The county is finishing a $16 million upgrade at and around its Southtowns plant to address overflows in the Rush Creek area.

In Cheektowaga and West Seneca, the communities are also moving forward with improving sewer infrastructure to stem overflows into Cazenovia, Buffalo and Scajaquada creeks.

“While communities across the state are doing their part to meet these needs, additional assistance from the state would help close the investment gap,” Fiegl said. “The county can speak from experience that state grant monies for the Rush Creek Interceptor project provided a real boost to assist the local ratepayers while they shouldered the remaining costs.”

Large urban areas such as Buffalo have combined wastewater and sewage systems. The volume of rushing water can be too much for sewage-treatment plants to handle and result in sewage overflows. Often, there are no meters to track the volume of overflows, Moran said.

About 4 billion gallons are estimated to overflow from the City of Buffalo – not all of it reported.

Buffalo is under a consent order the clean up its share of the problem. In 2014, the Buffalo Sewer Authority signed an agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to solve the overflows, which are a violation of the federal Clean Water Act. Those improvements will occur over the next two decades.

Other areas have separate stormwater and sanitary systems, but still encounter problems.

When it rains, stormwater enters the sanitary sewers through cracked pipes, illegal attachment of downspouts, yard receptacles, stationary tubs and sump pumps.

The excess water inundates the sanitary sewers, resulting in treatment plants overflowing sewage into area creeks, streams and lakes.

During the summer, that polluted runoff often results in public health advisories and beach closings.

The sewage also contributes more phosphorus to Lakes Erie and Ontario and inland water bodies, polluting the water and feeding algal blooms and dead zones.