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Black sewage plume at Falls raises flags on both sides of border

ALBANY – New York State in recent years pumped millions of dollars into economic development projects for Niagara Falls, all in an attempt to revitalize the city’s image.

But there’s a new and very different image millions of news consumers around the world have gotten the past few days of Niagara Falls, such as the United Kingdom’s Daily Mail newspaper headline: “Niagara Falls becomes a torrent of SEWAGE: Shocked tourists are exposed to black cloud of foul-smelling gunk at legendary waterfall.’’

The black plume that oozed through parts of the lower Niagara River beginning late Saturday afternoon – before the eyes and noses of tourists from around the world during the height of the summer season – did not go unnoticed on the other side of the river. The reaction in Canada is stretching from concern to anger.

“While this incident did take place in the USA and the ministry does not have any involvement, we are taking it very seriously,’’ said Lindsay Davidson, a spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Environment and Climate Change.

Canadian officials, Davidson said, first learned of the discharge from “other sources.” They then reached out to authorities in Niagara Falls, New York and at the state Department of Environmental Conservation for information about the discharge, the volume of which is still unknown.

Other Canadians saw the sewage plume incident as a stain on the reputation of Canada's greatest tourism asset. "Clearly this had a huge impact on the worldwide perception of our jurisdiction," said Anthony Annunziata, interim executive director of the Tourism Partnership of Niagara. "It's had a negative impact, and it doesn't sit well with Canadians."

While pumping black sewage into the Niagara River might be legal, "the people that made that decision didn't respect the fact that other people and industries will be affected," he added.

Niagara Falls, Ont., Mayor Jim Diodati shared Annunziata's concerns. "I don't think this is anything that's going to help tourism, that's for sure," he said.

As state officials say they have found no evidence of permanent environmental damage, the public relations dent has people on both sides of the border worried. “All of the efforts to re-brand Niagara Falls and change people’s perception is undone by one incident like this,’’ said state Sen. Robert Ortt, a Republican whose district includes Niagara Falls.

There may be other binational concerns: The discharge could be in violation of a 2012 Great Lakes water quality agreement between the United States and Canada.

The issue has attracted the concern of at least one member of the U.S. Congress. Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat and a member of the Congressional Great Lakes Task Force, Wednesday wrote to EPA officials in New York and at the Great Lakes National Program Office in Chicago to request that the agency investigate the sewage discharge. He said that while he has confidence in the state DEC’s investigation, the EPA should look into the situation, too, because the discharge may have violated the federal Clean Water Act as well as agreements involving the shared waters of the United States and Canada.

“This discharge is disconcerting not only because of the importance of the tourism industry in Niagara Falls, but also because of the significant and unique ecosystem in the Niagara Gorge downstream of the Falls," wrote Higgins, whose district includes Niagara Falls. "The preservation of vital resources like these is among the agency’s most important responsibilities."

Just the smell of the Falls sewage discharge chased away food stand customers

But David W. Kluesner, an EPA spokesman, said the primary responsibility for investigating the discharge lies with the state.

"Governor Cuomo has called for the NYSDEC to investigate the matter, as the NYSDEC has the responsibility to see to it that both state and federal requirements are being met," Kluesner said. "NYSDEC will look into whether there were any violations, such as water quality or NPDES permit violations. The EPA will be in communication with New York State on its review and findings."

State running broad probe of wastewater plant

On Wednesday, four days after the now-infamous sewage discharge, the state’s DEC staff was poring through records and has sent a team of investigators to the source of the discharge – the Niagara Falls wastewater treatment plant. One agency official described what’s underway as a “wholesale” examination of the facility’s operation.

DEC: Niagara Falls discharge 'clearly violated water quality standards'

The Niagara Falls Water Board, the plant’s operator, for days refused to answer questions about what happened Saturday when the black sewage was in full view of tourists who thought they were coming to town to marvel at the waterfalls. The board’s chairman, Dan O’Callaghan, as well as its executive director, Rolfe Porter, did not return calls for comment. The board’s five members are appointed separately by the governor, leaders of the Assembly and Senate, and the city’s council and mayor.

The board did put out a three-paragraph statement Wednesday evening, which reiterated an early apology to “anyone inconvenienced by the discharge,’’ and noted that it met with a state DEC official on Wednesday at the plant.

The news media was not the only group that couldn't get information out of the Water Board. “I have had no official updates since Sunday myself,’’ said Colleen Larkin, one of five board members of the Niagara Falls Water Board. She declined to discuss details of the incident until she gets her own full report on what happened.

“My guess is right now they’re waiting until they have all the ducks in order and details and that they fully understand what happened,’’ she said.

No matter the final explanation, the optics were not good. “The timing was unfortunate regardless of the circumstances,’’ Larkin said of the decision to have such a major sewage discharge on a sunny Saturday afternoon when the area was packed with tourists.

Black sewage blob gives Niagara Falls a PR black eye

Ortt, who recommended Larkin for the board, said he shook his head in disbelief when news of the incident spread last weekend. He raised questions about it occurring on the watch of top new staff members and a board that was mostly new earlier this year.

“It was supposed to be more accountable. I’m not seeing it,’’ he said of the water board. He called it's a mistake that should cost someone their job. “If this was the private sector, somebody would be held accountable for that kind of mistake.’’

New York alleges violation

New York in 2013 granted a permit for the water plant to discharge treated water back into the Niagara River, according to a copy of the 23-page document obtained by The Buffalo News on Wednesday. The permit sets safety levels for effluents, or wastewater, to be legally discharged into the river.

The Niagara facility, state officials said, has five different holding basins where water is treated. One of the basins – it was not immediately clear how big it is – was drained Saturday through a backwashing operation to prepare for renovation work that state officials said they were told by the water board was set to begin on Monday – two days after the controversial discharge. They said the basin in question does not receive raw, untreated sewage and is used only for backwashing operations of the facility’s carbon filters.

The state is preliminarily focusing on a theory that the backwashing operation was left running for too long. Whether it was human error or something else is unclear, officials said.

They also said they had still not been notified of or witnessed any fish kills connected to the discharge. “We believe this was a one-time incident that quickly cleared up,’’ said one state official involved in the investigation.

Canadian environment officials said they have not received calls about the discharge at their regional office in St. Catharines or its Spills Action Centre.

New York environmental agency officials, who spoke on background Wednesday, could not put a timetable on when their probe of the plant's actions would be concluded. Preliminarily, though, the agency this week said that the discharge “clearly violated water quality standards.’’

One of the officials called the discharge “an atypical situation.’’ The officials said the discharged water was anaerobic, which helped create its black appearance, and it became dissipated by an oxygenation process when it came in contact with the churning water from the lower Niagara River. Evidence of the discharge could still be seen by tourists on Sunday morning. The discharge is being investigated by the state agency’s water engineers and other water experts, as well as its environmental law enforcement division, in both Albany and the Buffalo regional office.

The water board did not notify the state of the discharge; state officials said they learned of the incident about two hours after it first began when calls came into the environment agency’s spill hotline.

Canada monitoring incident

The International Joint Commission, which is charged with protecting the waters shared by the United States and Canada, may have concerns about the sewage blob as well.

The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement of 2012 maintains that those waters should "be a source of safe, high quality drinking water" and be safe for recreational uses and free from harmful levels of pollutants. So if the sewage release violates New York's water quality standards, it could also violate that international agreement, said Sally Cole-Misch, an IJC spokesperson.

Enforcement of the agreement is left to U.S., Canadian, state and provincial governments. A spokesman for Environment and Climate Change Canada said that while it is too soon for the agency to comment, "we are closely monitoring the situation."

The discharge also could have violated another provision of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. Article Six of the agreement commits both the United States and Canada to notify the other "if a party becomes aware of a pollution incident, or the imminent threat of a pollution incident, that could be of joint concern to both of the parties.”

Paul Dyster, the mayor of the U.S. city of Niagara Falls, released a brief statement Wednesday saying that he is “disappointed in the unfortunate lapse in communication” by the board about Saturday’s incident. He said the city’s police department is investigating the matter with state DEC officers.

Diodati, the Niagara Falls, Ont., mayor said he learned of the sewage plume from social media on Saturday afternoon. People didn't know what they were seeing spilling out into the river, and so they jumped to conclusions, he said.

"There were all sorts of comments about toxins," Diodati said. "There were references to Love Canal," the notorious toxic waste site that prompted the evacuation of a Niagara Falls, N.Y., neighborhood in the late 1970s. "People were filling in the blanks because they didn't have answers," he added.

Diodati questioned the timing of the sewage release. He noted that when the Niagara Power Project lowers the water flow over Niagara Falls, it is done at night, after the lights on the Falls are turned off – so tourists won't be turned off by a disappointing view of the world-famous landmark. "Even if this discharge was legal, which remains to be seen, there's no reason to do it in the middle of the busy tourist season, in the middle of the day," the mayor said.

The natural wonder that's Canada's top tourist attraction deserves more respect, he added. "There's only one Niagara Falls," Diodati said. "There's only one Niagara River. We have to take care of it."

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