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Editorial: Apology from Falls Water Board is not enough

At least he was honest – and said he was sorry.

Apology accepted, but it doesn’t change the fact that black, smelly sewer discharge has oozed into the Niagara River. Over and over, and worse, captured on video and posted on social media for the world to see.

Nicholas J. Forster, the City Council’s appointee to the five-member Niagara Falls Water Board, proclaimed what no one wanted to hear: Discharges happen. And they are going to keep happening, at least for years.

He was, for the first time publicly, addressing the disgusting sewer discharges captured on visitors’ smartphones and shared as part of their trip to Niagara Falls.

During a meeting of the Niagara Falls City Council a week ago, 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.”

Thanks for that, but what and when will anything be done about it?

Councilman Andrew P. Touma observed, “I don’t think we realized the depth of the infrastructure issue.” That “infrastructure issue” is at the root of the chronic problem. It is a matter of insufficient capacity and outdated technology.

The Water Board knows that modern treatment plants use a biological process to handle waste. The Niagara Falls plant, meanwhile, uses a combination of chemical and physical processes. As this page has said before, the plant needs to be updated and the sooner the better.

The discharges are alarming. None more so than on July 29, the height of tourist season, when foul black effluent was released into the gorge. It was caused by avoidable human error stemming in part from poor management practices.

The incident prompted Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to head to Niagara Falls to publicly criticize the board and announce a fine from the Department of Environmental Conservation. He warned the board to take steps to prevent such incidents from recurring. But then it happened again. And again.

The Water Board has blamed those overflows on heavy rains overwhelming the water treatment plant’s capacity of 60 million gallons a day, as reported in The News.

The statement indicated that in such cases, the board has no control. Not over the amount of sewage overflows, nor its color. “In weather events we’re going to continue to overflow. We can’t stop it. We have no place to put the water,” Forster, who is also chairman of the Niagara County Democratic Committee, said.

As for the 30 million gallon tanks he said they need, there is no property and no money. And it would cost an estimated $15 million to $20 million to move the discharge pipe away from the Maid of the Mist dock. Switching to a biological treatment process, recommended in 1977 when the plant was built, would cost a whopping $100 million.

Those are difficult challenges, but the Water Board can’t be allowed to just throw up its hands and relegate the Niagara River to decades of periodic pollution. Planning for upgrades should have begun decades ago, but it’s never too late to start. If this Water Board is not up to the task, it needs to make way for members with ideas that go beyond apologizing for every overflow.

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