On July 29, 2017, the putrid black discharge gushed from a tunnel into the base of the American Falls and spread across the water's surface like an ink blot at one of the most recognized tourist spots in the world.
The black water became a black eye for Niagara Falls.
But the shocking sight that day spurred action, under pressure from indignant public officials, regulators and the public.
Since the incident — blamed on outdated equipment and operator error — the Niagara Falls Water Board has checked off boxes on an aggressive 17-item to-do list ordered last December by the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
The board, under close watch from the DEC, has upgraded equipment, improved plant efficiency, met hiring goals and sought to improve the culture of how it does business, Water Board officials said.
And with about $20 million in state funds, it is moving ahead with studies that could lead to:
- An entirely new sewage treatment system.
- The relocation of wastewater outfalls.
- Reduced sewage overflows during heavy rains.
But without spending as much as $100 million more, the 1970s equipment at the Buffalo Avenue plant cannot produce consistently clear discharges, Water Board officials say.
Last Tuesday, Rolfe Porter, the Niagara Falls Water Board executive director, watched the milky look of treated sewage tumbling toward the plant's exit like miniature versions of the American Falls.
The effluent plunged 110 feet to a 127-year-old tunnel bored through the bedrock beneath the city.
"If you want to have a different color, we need a different technology. This is the best this plant can do," Porter said.
Shock and acrimony
On July 29, 2017, that discharge was black.
It was caught on a video shot from a tourism company's helicopter flying over the Niagara River Gorge that sunny Saturday afternoon.
The video, once posted on the internet, became a worldwide viral sensation, shown by media from Toronto to Tasmania.
It shocked the public and also ignited an acrimonious few months between the Water Board and the state.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo visited Niagara Falls several times after last July's sewage overflows and lambasted the Water Board for "inexcusable" violations of state and federal environmental laws. Cuomo demanded the DEC "get to the bottom" of what was causing the problems and ordered it to stop overflowing sewage into the Niagara River near the American Falls during heavy rains.
The DEC followed that up by filing violation notices against the Water Board and fined it $50,000 for the July 29 incident. It also assigned a full-time on-site environmental monitor to provide third-party oversight at the wastewater treatment plant, which continues to this day.
Just before Christmas, the DEC imposed a consent order aimed at preventing future discharges and demanding the board study the eventual replacement of the current carbon-based sewage filtering technology with a biological treatment system.
It also announced a $20 million grant to begin to pay for the upgrades.
So far, the Water Board is doing what it needs to by complying with the terms and schedule of the consent order, the DEC said.
It will need to continue on that path to avoid any future entanglements with the state, according to DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos.
"We’re making progress to put this facility on the expedited path to compliance and to protect the Niagara River into the future," Seggos told The Buffalo News. "But make no mistake, New York will continue to be a constant presence at this facility to ensure they do not undermine and threaten Western New York’s vital tourism economy and irreplaceable natural resources.”
Seggos credited Cuomo's attention and the consent order with initiating the progress in Niagara Falls.
The Water Board must seize the momentum that has been building since last summer and sustain it, he said.
“Over the last year, DEC has remained vigilant in overseeing the operations of this facility and stands ready to use all available legal tools to ensure the Water Board does not backslide on our requirements to improve operations and maintenance of the facility and advance needed long-term upgrades to reduce impacts to water quality," Seggos said.
So far, the Niagara Falls Water Board has met all of its deadlines and obligations, the DEC confirmed.
And that's as encouraging a statement as the Water Board has received from the state in some time.
Water Board officials characterized the current relationship with the DEC as cordial.
"We're working hand in glove," Porter said. "They know everything we're doing."
The DEC and Water Board met most recently on July 19 to talk about how to spend the $20 million in state money to improve the plant and sewer system and how to share the costs.
The Water Board plans nine improvement projects inside the plant, carrying a total price tag of $24 million to $27 million, Porter said.
The projects include piping, electrical and chemical improvements, plus a gorge pump station rehabilitation.
The DEC has told the board it will pay about $12 million toward those projects.
"That's just to make the plant run," Porter said.
The big fixes
The long-term fixes — replacing the current sewage treatment equipment, moving the tunnel that empties treated sewage into the Niagara River Gorge, or both — are expected to be far more expensive.
It's something the state wants the Water Board to invest in, and is willing to provide resources and time to get it done.
"Our goal is to have a state-of-the-art new facility," according to a DEC statement. "It'll be a long-term plan to get the plant completely upgraded."
The agency added: "It is a complex project that will take some time."
At an engineering conference in Buffalo in March, Water Board consultant John Goeddertz said it could cost $20 million to excavate a new discharge tunnel below the waterline of the Niagara River. He said it might cost $100 million to convert the wastewater treatment plan to a new system, or erect a new one.
"We're one of the very few wastewater treatment plants that has a discharge above the waterline. That needs to be changed," said Nicholas J. Forster, a Water Board member.
He said four or five possible new discharge sites are being studied.
Forster said he was glad Cuomo and the DEC recognized Niagara Falls' infrastructure needs help, but added state aid "is not the fix-all."
"We have some in-house dollars we can use, and we'll probably do some bonding," Forster said.
He said it was "premature" to say whether ratepayers will see an increase in their bills.
The study on moving the tunnel is due Sept. 19. A study on switching from a carbon-based treatment system to a biological system is due March 19. Porter said both are meant to provide firmer cost estimates.
"We're going to put anywhere from $22 million to $40 million into wastewater treatment plant operations," Forster said. "It's a very expensive plant to operate."
How the effluent looks
The plant uses a carbon-based system because when the plant was built in the 1970s, carbon filtration was considered more effective at treating industrial sewage.
But Niagara Falls has fewer heavy industrial plants now than it did 40 years ago.
"Industrial flows are a fraction of what they used to be," said Kenneth Maving, an environmental scientist with the GHD engineering firm, working as a consultant to the Water Board.
One of the key questions to be addressed in the upcoming study is whether a biological system, which uses microorganisms to "eat" the organic material in sewage, can handle the industrial sewage Niagara Falls still has. Maving said he doesn't know the answer to that question.
The discharges are more visible in warm weather, because when it's warmer, the treatment process produces more sulfides as a chemical byproduct of treatment, Maving said. That's what causes the dark color – sometimes.
"Unfortunately, our effluent looks a lot better in colder temperatures than it does in warmer temperatures," Maving said. "We're meeting all our permit requirements, I just want make sure I say that. It's just a color contrast issue, is what it is."
After last July's incident, the DEC said its top priority was immediately assessing and eliminating sludge and solids that had been allowed to accumulate in various processes at the sewage plant. That was completed last October.
From there, the DEC said it reviewed and modified the Water Board's near-term procedures to prevent re-occurrences of dark water releases and sewage overflows during times of heavy rains from the high-profile outfalls near the Maid of the Mist. That was finished last November.
The Water Board blamed an employee's error for the black water discharge, which wasn't a typical sewer outflow.
It came from Sedimentation Basin 5, the last of a line of five giant outdoor tanks that hold treated sewage at the plant.
Each basin is 60 feet wide, 260 feet long, and has a slanted bottom from 12 to 16 feet deep. The basins each hold 1.3 million gallons.
Basin 5 used to be set aside for dirty water rinsed from the 28 carbon beds that filter the sewage, according to Bob Dunn, who since January has been the plant's chief operator. It was being drained for maintenance last July 29.
Today, Basin 5 is closed for repairs. Dunn said the rinse water that used to go there is now cycled back for re-treatment in the plant before heading for the outbound pipe with the rest of the plant's treated sewage.
One alteration to the process is that more bleach is added to the rinse, he said. Otherwise, Dunn said, "Nothing has really changed as far as backwashing of our carbon beds. It's all pretty much stayed the same."
The plant treats an average of 30 million gallons of sewage each day, although in dry weather, the flow falls to as little as 23 million gallons a day.
Improvements have been made at Basins 1 through 4 to move sludge out quicker and remove the scum that floats to the top more often, Dunn said.
One of the results has been a noticeable reduction in sewage odors which used to leave the open-air tanks and, if the wind was in the wrong direction, cast an unpleasant aroma over downtown Niagara Falls.
"We're steadily looking for ways that we can make things more reliable, and I think we're doing a pretty good job of that," Dunn said.
He worked at the plant for almost eight years before taking charge of its 17-member operations team.
"I actually was the blue-collar guy before this, which helps, because I know how the plant has run, and here I am trying to help fix it," Dunn said.
The plant was short-handed until one last hire earlier this month brought the team up to full strength, he said.