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$20 million in aid earmarked to prevent Niagara Falls sewage discharges

Niagara Falls' wastewater treatment plant, which malfunctioned spectacularly this summer in an incident that brought the city worldwide derision, is being earmarked for special aid from Albany.

Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul announced Tuesday that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo will ask the State Legislature for $20 million for what she described as the first phase of improvements at the sewer plant.

The proposal is to be included in the State of the State address, which Cuomo will make next month.

"It feels like Christmas today," Niagara Falls Water Board Chairman Daniel T. O'Callaghan said at the news conference in the Niagara Gorge Discovery Center.

Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos told reporters that the state has $500,000 on hand now to pay for two engineering studies on the plant, which would determine exactly what can be done with the $20 million.

Though the long-term goal is to convert the plant from its current carbon-based treatment system to a biological system, officials said work can be done in the short term to prevent excessive discharges from the plant.

The Department of Environmental Conservation and the Water Board, which operates the city's water and sewer systems, signed a consent order Tuesday in response to the July 29 "black water" incident.

A video of the discharge of smelly carbon-colored water from the main sewer outflow beside the Maid of the Mist dock went viral and led to a $50,000 fine against the Water Board.

The Water Board also has absorbed criticism from the DEC for excessive discharges of untreated storm sewage after heavy rains, though these are common in communities that combine storm and sanitary sewage in the same mains.

Seggos said the consent order requires a wet-weather operations plan that would reduce those combined sewer overflows; installation of a permanent monitoring system at the sewer plant; permanent, ongoing staff training; and a plan to reduce sludge buildup that contributed to the "black water" incident.

There actually will be two engineering studies, one due in nine months and the other in 15 months. O'Callaghan said the studies will point the way to what needs to be done to improve the plant.

"This is just phase one. After phase one, we'll see what we go from there," he said.

"It's too early to tell how expensive it's going to be," Seggos said.

The DEC chief said his staff's investigation of the July 29 incident showed "certainly some operator error, but also a very antiquated system."

"No matter what we do operationally, what is needed are some long-term upgrades," Hochul said. "To protect our beautiful falls and the Niagara River from future episodes of black water, New York State is stepping in to make sure these findings are acted on."

Seggos said the 40-year-old plant was built with a carbon sewage treatment system because local officials believed at the time that it would be the most effective way of treating liquid discharged from chemical plants. But Niagara Falls has less of that type of industry than it once did.

Seggos said there are only three carbon-treatment wastewater plants left in the state.

"Marrying our enforcement strategy also with funding, that's really the way that we're going to get out of this infrastructure mess that our predecessors have left us with," Seggos said.

Hochul said the July 29 discharge was "a great source of distress and frustration for everyone who lives here. How could this happen? And this preventable incident was made worse by deteriorating infrastructure."

"The long-term goal here is to fix the problem," Seggos said. "That may involve having to re-engineer the plant. It may involve certain parts of the plant being taken off-line completely and rebuilt from scratch. It is an outdated plant."

Seggos said the $20 million would be a grant to the Water Board, but future phases of the work could include zero-interest loans from the state Environmental Facilities Corp. and the possibility that Niagara Falls ratepayers would pay more.

"We are going to keep this entire investment as palatable as possible for the ratepayers in the area, which is why the governor stepped up with the $20 million, to keep that figure as low as possible. This is a hardship community in some ways, but it's also a community that has a tremendous amount to gain economically," Seggos said. "I would imagine that a combination of the two, grants and low-interest loans, would get the Water Board where they need to be."

Seggos said part of the study will include assessing whether the Falls Street Tunnel, the main sewer outfall near the Maid of the Mist dock and above the water line, can be moved.

"There are great responsibilities that come with being one of the icons of the natural environment," Niagara Falls Mayor Paul A. Dyster said. "We found out back in July that a whole lot of people around this globe are very concerned about environmental conditions here at Niagara Falls. That means there's a spotlight showing on our efforts here."

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