The wastewater discharge into the Niagara River that is getting worldwide attention may have violated water quality standards, according to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
He called the state Department of Environmental Conservation to begin an immediate investigation into the incident.
"Any violations of the state's water quality standards are a serious issue, and I have directed DEC to immediately get to the bottom of why this event occurred and ensure steps are taken to ensure it doesn't happen again," Cuomo said. "Niagara Falls and the Niagara River are a world-class destination for tourists and we should not be polluting this unparalleled natural resource."
DEC officers were called to investigate reports of a smelly, black discharge into the river between the American Falls and the Rainbow Bridge.
Rolfe Porter, the water board's executive director, said the discharge resulted from flushing a sediment basin, which is done routinely in the spring and fall. It was not normally performed during the tourist season though, he said.
The residue that turned the water black was residue from black carbon filters used to remove chemicals and smaller particles from the water.
"It did not exceed our permit," Porter said.
Porter said the Waste Water Treatment Plant had a DEC permit allowing it to empty and discharge its sedimentation basin. Though Saturday's discharge was "longer than usual," Porter said the action was taken legally, with DEC permission. He also said all the water discharged was monitored.
Nevertheless, city officials expressed frustration after the incident with how it transpired and the lack of communication about when it would be released.
"Different agencies witnessed this yesterday and nobody talked to each other," City Administrator Nick Melson told the News Sunday.
DEC officials said the water board's explanation is consistent with what operators later reported to the agency.
"The sediment basin in question is used solely for carbon filter 'backwash water' from cleaning the carbon filters and does not receive raw untreated sewage," according to a DEC statement.
It added: "If effluent was released from this settlement basin it would contain backwash contaminants, solids and carbon particulates, which would be consistent with a noticeable black plume and odors in the Niagara River near the plant outfall."
The DEC also noted that state water quality standards dictate that discharges "cannot adversely affect the Niagara River's color, odor or cause a substantial visible contrast to natural conditions."
Violations can carry up to a $37,500 fine.
It remained unclear Tuesday what materials were contained in the plume.
The section of the river where the plume was settling out is also the spot where environmental restoration efforts continue for the threatened lake sturgeon, which rely on the river bottom for food and reproduction.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife scientists involved in the efforts to restore the threatened sturgeon say they aren't immediately concerned, especially if the wastewater plant routinely makes discharges like this, but will keep tabs on developments.
"They don't show any signs of any higher levels of contaminants we're testing for," said Dimitry Gorsky, a fish biologist in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of the sturgeon population in the lower Niagara River. "We don't have any evidence it would be a problem yet."
Because of the large volume of water flowing over the nearby falls, DEC officials believe no long-term impacts are expected to habitat or wildlife, including to the sturgeon, from the plume.
Still, local environmental groups said the incident is the latest example of why upgrades to wastewater infrastructure are sorely needed across the Buffalo Niagara region and the Great Lakes.
"Just because this discharge may be an approved practice, does not mean it is what is best for the health of the Niagara River," said Jill Jedlicka, executive director of Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper.
Riverkeeper welcomes Cuomo's call for an investigation, Jedlicka said.
"In addition to the altered color and odor impacting the receiving water body, of particular concern to Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper was the presence of small carbon particles," Jedlicka said. "Toxic chemicals such as dioxins, metals and benzene can adhere to fine particles, and these chemical compounds are known to be present in past and current industrial discharges to the plant."
The incident, which generated widespread attention across North America and even as far away as the United Kingdom and Sydney, Australia, casts the region in a dark light globally and shows the world how lacking the region is in sewage infrastructure, according to Brian Smith of Citizens Campaign for the Environment.
"Our greatest natural resource is the Great Lakes, and our number one tourist attraction is Niagara Falls," Smith said. "Regardless of the legality, we should view dumping an inky, foul-smelling substance into our greatest natural resource and top tourist attraction as completely unacceptable."