First came the viral image of sewage blackening the Niagara River. Then we learned it was one of many sewage releases from the Niagara Falls water treatment plant. Now it turns out there are other communities that are as bad, if not worse.
The level is staggering: a half-billion gallons of combined sewage and stormwater flowing from just four Western New York communities into the Niagara River, Scajaquada Creek and other waterways since May.
As reporter T.J. Pignataro wrote, Cheektowaga ranks second and Niagara Falls fourth among upstate communities in the amount of polluted water released into waterways. This information is direct from sewage discharge reports filed from May through July with the state Department of Environmental Conservation. Discharges in Kenmore and Buffalo were the sixth- and seventh-highest amounts.
The problem usually occurs when aging sewer systems are overwhelmed by heavy rain. The overflowing sewage and stormwater dumps directly into waterways without being treated.
The July 29 “dry weather release” of black, stinky sludge into the Niagara River just below the American Falls will be a day that lives in infamy for anyone benefiting from Niagara Falls tourism – in other words, the entire region. The embarrassing stain was documented on social media and the national news.
It angered Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the DEC. Now the agency is investigating, with formal sanctions pending. The Water Board’s report to the agency is due Friday.
There have been numerous incidents in Niagara Falls: 19 reported overflows of sewage and stormwater into the Niagara River and Cayuga Creek the past three months. But those barely received notice until Aug. 15, when another combined sewer release, this one about 3 million gallons, turned the water brownish.
Again, top DEC officials set out to the Niagara Gorge and ordered a separate investigation. The agency on Friday cited the Water Board for violating water quality standards.
Cheektowaga’s overflows were bigger – adding up to 203.2 million gallons. Kenmore had far more overflows – 89 between May 1 and July 31, discharging 65.7 million gallons into Two Mile Creek between May and July. Both communities are under consent orders from the agency to fix their systems. Cheektowaga is in the midst of a 10-year project to stop stormwater from infiltrating into the sanitary sewer system. State grants and loans are helping pay for the work.
Kenmore is working toward compliance with a DEC agreement to reduce its sewage and stormwater overflows.
And then there’s Buffalo, which reported 64.8 million gallons of overflows. Given the city’s size and age of its infrastructure, that almost seems acceptable. Except there are some questions regarding the city’s reporting.
Buffalo is working under a 20-year, $380 million plan with the federal Environmental Protection Agency to reduce its overflows.
Combined sewer overflows were accepted by past generations, but that attitude has changed. Now it’s a matter of finding the will – and the money – to make the necessary changes. Access to clean water is one key to Western New York’s future. We can’t allow hundreds of millions of gallons of sewage to cloud that future.