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Editorial: Water Board deserved state intervention

We’re not exactly sure what the $50,000 fine will accomplish – or, more to the point, who will actually end up paying it – but, regardless, it’s all to the good that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo came to Niagara Falls last week to vent his anger over July’s black sediment discharge into the world-famous river.

The governor not only lit into the Niagara Falls Water Board for its carelessness, he announced a variety of consequences that, in addition to the fine, include supervision by the state Department of Environmental Conservation when the board makes any discharge from its plant, upgrading operating policies and protocols, retraining for all employees and updating training materials to ensure that protocols are followed.

Think of it as an operational control board for the Water Board, which in addition to allowing the stomach-churning discharge to occur, also misled the public about the cause for days afterward. It’s an entirely appropriate response to an entirely unacceptable violation.

What became obvious is that the Water Board was not operating professionally – that is, developing and adhering to systems and protocols that would render so gross a transgression unlikely. And if they are not in place for something as potentially consequential as draining a sediment basin – that’s what led to the discharge – it’s fair to wonder what other obligations are undertaken with a similar lack of care.

The DEC also criticized the board for an Aug. 15 discharge associated with a heavy thunderstorm. That criticism may also be fair, but like many other sewer systems in New York, storm sewage from rain or melting snow and sanitary sewage from sinks and toilets become combined in the same pipe. During a storm, that can overwhelm a plant’s capacity and lead to overflows. Those problems need to be addressed all around the state.

As to the $50,000 fine – who but ratepayers will be on the hook for it? How much better it would be next time simply to treat an offender to an unpaid suspension or even loss of job.

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