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Editorial: Fix the sewage plant

We’ve heard this before. Now it’s time to act.

John Goeddertz, an engineer with a company working under a contract with the Niagara Falls Water Board, told an audience this week that only a change in technology at the water plant can prevent colored discharged into the Niagara River, near the base of the falls.

Right. So, who is working to make that happen?

We learned the price last summer of old technology combined with operator error. A foul, black discharge poured into the river, surrounding a tourist boat and producing damaging headlines around the world. One of the world’s premier names in international tourism took one where it hurts.

Two things needed to happen in the aftermath of July’s misery. One is that the Water Board needed to establish clear protocols for conducting what is a necessary maintenance procedure. Because of a failure of procedure, the black effluent was dumped into the river. The board acknowledged the failure to implement a clear system and pledged to implement one.

The other necessary thing is to upgrade the plant’s old technology. The Water Board currently treats sewage with a carbon filtration process that was adopted 40 years ago, in part because it worked best at treating industrial sewage. Today, there are far fewer industries in Niagara Falls and technology has improved.

What is necessary, he said – and what has already been reported – is to change the plant to use a biological process, such as Niagara Falls, Ont., already does. It’s time to do that, and not only to prevent the kinds of tourism calamities such as occurred last summer.

As Goeddertz observed, the Niagara Falls plant is the only carbon-based facility from that era that has undergone no significant modification of its technology. “Capital upgrades and operational changes at this plant will only get you so far,” Goeddertz said.

Getting “so far” could be a good start, but a wholesale change in operations is what is needed. That is what the Water Board, the city, tourism promoters, state officials and anyone with a functioning nose should be demanding. Niagara Falls cannot succeed as a tourist destination if it conducts itself in a way that offends the senses of visitors. There’s no reason residents should tolerate it, either.

And it’s not just us. Residents and tourists in Niagara Falls, Ont., have a right to object to the olfactory and environmental desecration of one of the world’s prime tourism locations. People on this side of the river would surely protest if the roles were reversed. Livelihoods are stake.

As a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Conservation observed, the Water Board needs to get serious about dealing with this problem. Part of its strategy should be to seek help from the state.

At the urging of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, the state budget last year included a $2.5 billion measure to promote clean water in New York. Of that total, $1.5 billion was set aside for local government to improve water infrastructure. Few, if any, agencies in New York have a better claim to a share of that money than does the Niagara Falls Water Board.

The state has also earmarked $20 million for a first phase of improvements to the plant. It’s past time to get moving on this necessary project. Niagara Falls isn’t the industrial city it once was. More than ever, its economic lifeblood is in the visitors to come to marvel at the famous waterfall.

Tourism and smelly sewage discharges don’t mix well. Fix this.

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