The water near the base of Niagara Falls turned an alarming shade of black before tourists’ eyes following a foul-smelling discharge from a wastewater treatment plant.
Water cascading over Niagara Falls is one of the most awe-inspiring natural features in the world. But for passengers aboard the famed Maid of the Mist boat tour in summer 2017, the setting was more nauseating then breathtaking.
Three million gallons of untreated sewage spewed into the waterways of the popular tourist attraction. Water darkened, and the odor of feces permeated mist from the falls, according to dozens of reports from visitors aboard the tour boat that day.
Sadly, the defilement — blamed on outdated equipment and human operator error at the Niagara Falls Wastewater Treatment Plant — is no anomaly.
More than 6.5 billion gallons of sewage spewed from antiquated sewer systems into New York waterways on 1,900 occasions between April 2017 and March 2018, according to a report from the state comptroller’s office.
The problem is only getting worse as upgrades fail to keep up with deteriorating systems and climate change triggers more flooding. What will it take to solve the problem of untreated or partially treated sewage, combined with stormwater polluting rivers, creeks and other water bodies? A massive dollar investment in sewerage systems to handle the flows.
Consider the heavy rains of last summer, when Southern Tier rivers swelled beyond their banks. In Binghamton, for example, part of the rising Susquehanna River was fed over a 12-hour period on June 27 by a blend of an estimated 10 million gallons of partially untreated sewage and rainwater pouring in from an overflow site on Pennsylvania Avenue, according to state Department of Environmental Conservation records.
Communities are required to report the overflows to the DEC, which maintains an Excel spreadsheet of the incidents, but much of the data reflects estimates rather than precise measurements.
Heavy rains in August pushed huge amount of sewage into Southern Tier waterways. Around Aug. 13, a week of heavy rains dumped an estimated 238 million gallons of untreated sewage and rain into the Susquehanna. Last year, millions also poured into the Susquehanna from a pipe on Riverside Drive in Binghamton just west of the Lourdes Hospital complex.
In Elmira, more than 16 million gallons of raw sewage and rainwater poured into the Chemung River on Aug. 13 from three sites: East Water, West Water and Luce streets, according to the DEC data.
The problem is statewide, with sewage overflowing into the Niagara River, into the St. Lawrence River from Ogdensburg, and into several Buffalo-area waterways from Buffalo.
In Rochester, tens of millions of gallons of untreated sewage and rainwater overflowed into the Genesee River in November 2017, according to DEC records.
About 40 percent of the sewer systems in New York are at least 60 years old, and about 10 percent were built before 1925, DEC records show. About 65 percent of these older systems routinely overflow when overwhelmed with heavy rains.
A typical bathroom toilet holds about three gallons of water. An overflow of just 1 million gallons is equal to flushing more than 333,000 times into the river.
Last year alone, more than 100 spills in New York totaled at least 1 million gallons, and many were much larger.
Steve Busch, a kayak instructor at Binghamton University, says he stays away from the Binghamton-Johnson City Wastewater Treatment Plant, which has been under construction and is sorely overloaded in heavy rains. Busch said he has seen used condoms and fecal matter floating by.
“Since the 1960s with things like the Clean Water Act, the water has actually gotten better,” Busch said. “But that doesn’t mean it’s OK. We shouldn’t be dumping untreated waste into the rivers.”
A faulty system in Auburn allowed for the growth of harmful blue-green algae in Owasco Lake in the Finger Lakes region. The algae bloom released dangerous toxins that were found in the area’s drinking water even after it had been treated.
The trend is not encouraging. Heavy rain events have increased by about 70 percent from 1958 to 2010 because of climate change, according to the DEC.
“When billions of gallons of untreated waste spills into New York’s waterways, our health, environment, economy and quality of life suffer,” state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said in a statement. “State and local governments must remain focused on addressing the challenges of aging infrastructure through continued funding for these priorities, thoughtful capital planning and more sustainable development.”
What is a combined sewer system?
The issue boils down to a fundamental design flaw in 20th century systems ill-equipped to handle 21st century conditions.
Older systems merge the flows of stormwater, industrial wastewater and sewage at an open junction prior reaching to the water treatment plant.
When inundated, overflows at the junction keep rising sewage volumes from backing up into someone’s home or damaging the system. These are known as combined sewage overflows, or CSOs.
Overflows can occur at any of 807 designated release points in New York state designed as safeguards for bad weather, clogged pipes, system maintenance problems or human error.
The problem is compounded by municipal and private drain systems now designed to capture wastewater not only from kitchen sinks and toilets, but growing numbers of washing machines, dishwashers, backyard pools, car washes and more.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency makes allowances for spills due to severe weather, but other causes may draw fines.
The problems with overflows
In addition to obvious problem of aesthetics, untreated overflows contain sewage, oil, trash, harmful chemicals, metals, viruses and bacteria. Exposure is unhealthy, at the very least, and sometimes even life-threatening.
Laura Serrano and her son both contracted aseptic meningitis as a result of a sewage backup in her Suffolk County home in 2005 after the nearby Bergen Point Sewer Plant malfunctioned.
“You could see the feces, you could see things floating that came from the hospital,” she said. “Our home was inundated with this raw sewage. Me and my son were walking in it.”
In 2014, Serrano’s home was flooded again. She has since spent more than $100,000 in legal fees while attempting to sue for damages, she said.
The problem is not isolated to her house. Sewage overflows routinely contaminate a nearby beach where people unknowingly swim in it. “They don’t know what they’re swimming in,” Serrano added. “I know what they’re swimming in.”
Sewage also creates an environment for toxic algae that can kill plants, fish and pets, and endanger humans.
The problem is not a lack of understanding. It’s a lack of financial commitment. Combined sewer systems are slowly being updated on a spotty basis. But with an estimated cost of $5.1 billion over the next 20 years, in New York alone, clean water advocates are not holding their breath.
“If you’re a politician, probably the very last thing in order is this,” said Christopher Len, the founder of Clean Water Advocacy Center, a nonprofit organization that provides legal services for those facing water quality, quantity or access problems.
“Nobody sees, and nobody thinks of it unless there’s a disaster,” Len added. “Then you deal with it just enough so that people forget about it.”
A lack of monitors to gauge the problem compounds hazards, and much of the risk comes down to guesswork, according to officials.
“I don’t know, and I don’t think even the EPA or the states know how long the water remains unsafe after,” Len said. In some instances, “people just don’t know they’re swimming or wading or fishing in water that is potentially very unsafe.”
While a major sewage overflow at a popular tourist attraction is a potential headline, many overflows across the state go largely unnoticed.
A need for new infrastructure
The Binghamton-Johnson City plant, servicing about 35,000 households, is a prime example.
In May 2011, an exterior wall of the plant collapsed. A plague of technical problems, and lawsuits before and since that catastrophe, led to a $290 million overhaul, yet to be completed.
“All these overflows are going to be dependent on the rainfall we get,” said Kurt Brown, the wastewater supervisor in Binghamton. “It’s nothing out of the ordinary; the majority of it is rainwater.”
Brown explained that the wastewater treatment plant has screening units at outflow points that keep solid material from entering waterways, and that around 80 percent to 90 percent of an overflow is rainwater.
“We do quarterly reports to the EPA,” said Brown, “so the numbers, they have are going to be the maximum amounts.”
The answer, it seems, is more money.
Binghamton, like many cities in the state, is in the process of replacing the old system, but the construction process to dig up and replace an existing combined systems is costly and takes time.
A recent state grant from the Environmental Facilities Corp. added $20 million for the Binghamton-Johnson City Wastewater Treatment Plant rehabilitation project, bringing the total to $275 million.
The intention is to double the capacity of the plant and significantly reduce overflows. That effort includes separating portions of the combined system to prevent lines leading into the plant from being overwhelmed by rainstorms.
Meanwhile, the state recently allocated about $20 million for upgrades to the Niagara Falls Wastewater Treatment Plant, according to Matt Davison, a spokesperson for the plant.
Some call that a start. But it remains to be seen how far a renewed commitment to clean water across New York state will go or where it will end.
Jacobs Engineering Construction Administrator Jerry Nystrom gives an update on the progress made at the Joint Cities Water Treatment Plant in Vestal.
Patrick Oehler/Staff Video
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