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Niagara Falls Water Board member apologizes — but says overflows will go on

A member of the Niagara Falls Water Board said Monday that the board is sorry for the black, smelly sewer discharges that have fouled the Niagara River — and the city's image.

But without a massive investment in new infrastructure, the overflows can't be stopped and will continue for years.

That was the message from Nicholas J. Forster, the City Council's appointee to the Water Board, who for the first time publicly addressed the incidents that have brought the agency state penalties and worldwide notoriety.

After a 20-minute presentation on the sorry state of the city's water and sewer systems — leaky pipes, broken hydrants and street cave-ins — Forster offered "my personal apologies and that of the whole board for any harm caused the city and tourists by the inky black water discharges into the Niagara River."

The presentation came during a regular meeting of the Niagara Falls City Council on Monday.

Forster was appointed to the five-member board by the Council in January, and the Council members sounded satisfied with Forster's report.

"I think you've exceeded expectations, based on what you inherited," Councilman Andrew P. Touma said. "I don't think we realized the depth of the infrastructure issues."

"You do answer your phone and you get back to us with stuff," said Councilman Kenneth Tompkins, the Council's sole Republican.

On July 29, a worker failed to follow verbal instructions during the process of dewatering a sewage sediment basin. The pump ran too long and caused the release of the discolored water, according to the board's report to the Department of Environmental Conservation. An earlier statement said a worker left his post during the procedure to help with a problem elsewhere in the sewer plant.

Thousands of tourists saw a Saturday afternoon discharge of black, smelly sewer residue from the Falls Street Tunnel, a discharge pipe located near the Maid of the Mist dock in the Niagara River Gorge below the Falls.

An aerial video of the black cloud, shot by a pilot for Rainbow Air, a helicopter tour company, went viral on the internet.

The DEC concluded that the Water Board had violated water quality standards.

On Sept. 14, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo came to Niagara Falls to announce that the DEC was fining the Water Board $50,000.

There have been several other overflows from the sewer plant since July 29. The Water Board issued written statements blaming those on heavy rains overtaxing the wastewater treatment plant's capacity of 60 million gallons a day. It has said that in such instances, it has no control over how much sewage overflows, or what color it is.

"In wet weather events we're going to continue to overflow. We can't stop it. We have no place to put the water," said Forster, who also is chairman of the Niagara County Democratic Committee. "We're going to have put in tanks that are 30 million gallons. We don't have the property that we can grab, nor the money."

Moving the discharge pipe away from the Maid of the Mist dock would cost an estimated $15 million to $20 million. Switching to a biological treatment process from the carbon filtration system of treating sewage, which was recommended in 1977 when the plant was built, could cost $100 million.

"If we had the money today and the shovel tomorrow, we're still talking five years down the road," Forster said. "So unfortunately, this issue of the Niagara Falls wastewater treatment plant and overflows are going to continue."

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