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Editorial: Foul work by Niagara Falls Water Board

In Niagara Falls, an internationally famous tourist city, on a weekend during peak season, someone thought it would be a fine idea to dump sewage wastewater into the river, exactly where thousands of tourists routinely gather. It’s idiocy of a rare order.

The Niagara Falls Water Board, which was responsible for the discharge, initially insisted it had all the necessary permits and that the discharge was monitored.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation demurred, saying that even if the board was in compliance with the permits, it committed other violations. “In this instance, the discharge clearly violated water quality standards, which prohibit discharges that adversely affect color, cause odor or cause a substantial visible contrast to natural conditions,” a DEC official said.

The Water Board changed its tune later in the week, now blaming either a stuck valve or operator error for allowing flushing of water treatment carbon beds to go on too long. The agency apparently meant to dump only sewage into the river, not the inky black carbon particles that led to such alarming photos of the river last weekend.

You have to shake your head. What about common sense? Did it not occur to anyone at the Water Board that dumping even a colorless smelly brew into the Niagara River smack in the middle of the year’s peak tourist hours was – not to put too fine a point on it – stupid beyond belief?

The long-term consequences may be only minor, despite unwanted worldwide publicity about the afternoon stench bomb. Certainly, the event didn’t do anything to help the reputation of this international destination, but given that the black pool of water dissipated quickly, there appears to be no long-lasting damage.

Short term, the harm was beyond horrendous. Imagine the plight of the people on the Maid of the Mist boat as it approached the dock, surrounded by foul, black water. Food merchants reported their customers were chased away by the smell. The owner of one food truck said he had taken in only $47 as of 2 p.m. Saturday, just over 5 percent of the $800 he would normally have expected to produce. That’s money out of people’s pockets and, surely, across the river in Ontario, too.

The Water Board says the flushings of a sediment basin at its water plant are routine and occur twice yearly. If so, the practice needs to be re-evaluated.

It is important that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has directed the DEC to investigate the discharge because, if something as outlandish as this could happen once, it could happen twice. Western New Yorkers need to know:

• Who made the decision?

• What factors were considered before the discharge was authorized?

• What consideration, if any, was given to the potential impact on the area’s tourism industry?

• Under what circumstances were such discharges previously authorized?

• Has anyone been disciplined for allowing this discharge to go awry?

• Why did no one from the Water Board notify the DEC, which heard about the discharge from other state officials?

• What steps are being taken to ensure this doesn’t happen again?

It would be easy simply to forget about this incident, especially since no long-term damage appears to have been done. That would be a mistake. The DEC needs to investigate closely and then report back to the people of Niagara Falls what it discovered and what actions it has taken in response.

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