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Editorial: Updates overdue at sewage plants on both sides of Niagara River

So it turns out both cities use the Niagara River as a sewage dump, if only occasionally and usually inadvertently. The cities of Niagara Falls, New York and Ontario, have a problem with overflows that pollute their namesake river in wet weather. Neither side should be satisfied with that.

The problem was highlighted earlier this summer under different circumstances. The poorly run plant on the New York side dumped a stinking black discharge into the river, creating a stench bad enough to warrant headlines in newspapers around the world. That event was a result of operator error – one that should have been easily avoidable – and which could only occur on this side of the river, because of the outdated technology used here.

Since then, though, treatment plants on both sides have discharged untreated sewage into the river below the falls. That problem occurs in many areas, including Hamburg, when too much rainfall overwhelms treatment plants and causes sewage to overflow.

That’s a problem that needs to be corrected wherever it occurs, of course.

Still, few places are at greater risk of economic harm than either of these cities, hosts to one of the world’s best-known tourist attractions. It is in each municipality’s fundamental self-interest to fix the problems that their inadequate treatment systems cause.

Imagine if something like this were happening at the Statue of Liberty. It would be fixed, posthaste. Niagara Falls deserves that kind of attention and, in New York, at least, there is immediate hope of help.

At the urging of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, the State Legislature included a $2.5 billion water infrastructure bill as part of the 2017-18 state budget. It’s only a start of what will be needed across the state, but few places have as strong a claim to early funding as Niagara Falls, home to New York’s oldest and revenue-generating state park.

That could help to fix the problems, both the periodic overflows and the kind of discharge that occurred in July, at the peak of the tourist season. The foul-smelling black effluent surrounded a Maid of the Mist boat, and its malodorous scent wafted through that air miles distant.

That problem could also be diminished by better training, better oversight and a commitment to protocols that would rule out such repellent discharges. But, at some point, sooner rather than later, the plant’s old technology will need to be updated. Niagara Falls should not want to be host to conditions that could ruin its standing as a tourist destination.

Our lakes and rivers are valuable resources that need more respect than to knowingly foul them when we can take steps to fix those problems. Indeed, Americans have been improving their environment for decades, lately including the Great Lakes, through the federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Tributaries such as the Buffalo River have also been improved. Decades ago in Cleveland, the Cuyahoga River was so polluted, it caught fire. That, too has been fixed.

Now New York needs to attend to sewage overflows. It will be a costly and long-term project, but it’s time to start.

As to the sister city across the river, we hope its leaders will agitate for improvements that will prevent sewage overflows. Each city relies on the other for good practices, and, if New York has been especially unreliable in that regard lately, it doesn’t mean that both sides don’t need to take steps to improve matters.

In fact, we’d suggest a competition. Whichever side fixes its problem first gets crowing rights while elected officials on the other side will be required for one year to conduct their public meetings with clothespins on their noses.

Or something like that.

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