BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — Many Western New York waterways turn toxic hundreds of times every year, after heavy or even moderate rains force billions of gallons of partially or untreated sewage into creeks, streams and rivers.
Correcting the problem of sewage overflows isn’t an option. And the men and women charged with cleaning the water Western New Yorkers eventually drink say there’s something even more troubling: There’s barely enough money available to keep up with such a serious and common health hazard — let alone fix it.
The effluent pools at the Niagara Falls Wastewater Treatment Plant provide workers one final look at what eventually ends up in the Niagara River.
On July 29, 2017, the water flowing over the pool dam suddenly turned jet black, after human error and outdated equipment led to the release of carbon and raw sewage, and the foul mixture clouded the river near the Maid of the Mist at the peak of tourist season.
“We’ve had a few incidents that were something that nobody wanted to see,” said Dan O’Callaghan, the chairman of the Niagara Falls Water Board.
Although that particular overflow made international headlines, it was only a fraction of the 144 million gallons of untreated or partially treated sewage that environmental advocates said spilled from the Niagara Falls plant that month alone.
What continues to happen in Niagara Falls is a regular occurrence at every wastewater treatment plant in Western New York and across the state.
Overflows are a reality, a byproduct of outdated plants and pipes — and there is no end in sight to their toxic release into local waterways.
Like most wastewater treatment facilities, the plant in Niagara Falls cannot handle the demand of weather and population.
“The plant is antiquated,” O’Callaghan said. “The equipment is failing. We have a lot of issues here.”
In Niagara Falls, it takes just a half inch of rain over the span of 10 hours to cause an overflow, according to water board officials.
They are not unique. In October, a single weather event led to overflows at nearly every plant in Western New York.
Overflows happen when heavy or moderate rain leads to runoff from streets, parking lots and fields, which mixes with raw sewage and overwhelms sewer systems. The result is then permitted to bypass wastewater plants and flow, untreated, directly into creeks and rivers.
In 2012, the state enacted the Sewage Pollution Right to Know Act, which orders municipalities to disclose through various means potential contamination from sewage overflows. While the act was intended to increase transparency and protect the public, it also revealed a much deeper problem: The state’s wastewater infrastructure is sorely outdated.
Between 2013 and 2015, Western New York reported the most overflows in the state with 1,825 — dumping an estimated 57 million gallons of sewage into local waterways, according to a report released last year by Environmental Advocates of New York.
During the same period, municipalities in Erie County accounted for nearly 58 percent of all overflows reported statewide, according to the report, which also shows the region of Western New York is the largest contributor of reported overflows in the state, accounting for 68 percent of the state’s total reports.
Like the treatment plant in Niagara Falls, Buffalo’s facility has been outdated for decades.
There are 200 overflow points throughout Buffalo’s 850-mile pipe system.
Today, it’s estimated that Buffalo, alone, discharges more than 4 billion gallons of untreated water into the Niagara River and its tributaries every year, according to Environmental Advocates of New York.
“You get those things that you see on the ground, anything from leaves to trash to those things that people really shouldn’t be flushing down the toilet,” said Oluwole McFoy, the general manager of the Buffalo Sewer Authority. “So, anything from pop bottles to unmentionables.”
Built in 1939 and updated in the late 70s, the massive plant accepts sewage from the city, Cheektowaga, Amherst, Tonawanda and more.
Overflows from Cheektowaga are the biggest contributor to Scajaquada Creek’s label as an impaired waterway.
“It really is about managing the problem, because what we’re talking ultimately about here is water quality,” McFoy said. “So we need to manage it to a point where water quality is not affected.”
During his state of the union address this week, President Donald Trump called on Congress to support a one $1.5 trillion dollar infrastructure bill.
The goal: Rebuild the country’s outdated and rapidly deteriorating roads, bridges and public facilities.
The most expensive are also the most critical — the country’s sewer systems.
“Western New York, like other regions in the state, contribute billions of gallons of sewage into our waterways on an annual basis,” said Liz Moran, the water and natural resources director for Environmental Advocates of New York.
Moran is a co-author to the agency’s 2017 report: Tapped Out — New York’s Clean Water in Peril.
The report highlights Cheektowaga and Niagara Falls for their response to the Sewage Pollution Right to Know Act of 2012.
And it shows just how big the problem is the state’s for region that abuts two of the five Great Lakes.
“These systems were not designed to handle the capacity in which they are inundated today,” Moran said.
Buffalo’s system — like nearly every wastewater system in New York — is so antiquated it can’t handle current demands, and hasn’t for years.
“Many of these systems were designed earlier in the 1900s,” McFoy said. “They were designed so instead of the water going into basements when it rains, they were designed to go into our waterways.”
Buffalo’s wastewater treatment plant handles the waste from several municipalities. As a result, Moran said the plant is responsible for about 4 billion gallons of overflows into the Niagara River and its tributaries every year.
It’s a problem that will likely never be fixed.
“We are talking about billions and billions of dollars, just in this area, just in the area of Western New York,” McFoy said. “So to eliminate CSOs (combined sewer overflows) and SSO (sanitary sewer overflows), that’s the challenge. That money doesn’t exist.”
Instead, they like every other treatment plant in the state, will take a peacemeal approach — a proposed $400 million over the next 20 years to update the plant’s oldest and most critical parts.
Like Buffalo, the staff at the Niagara Falls Wastewater Treatment Plant is performing above expectations, given they’re working with technology that’s been outdated for decades.
In addition to normal residential and industrial use, they can handle about a half inch of rain over a period of about 10 hours. Even that’s a stretch.
“That’s when everything’s working and nothing’s broken and everything’s running well, we can do well at 70-85 (million gallons per day),” said Rolfe Porter, the executive director of the Niagara Falls Water Board. “But the plant’s breaking down.”
The Niagara Falls Water Board received a half a million dollars from the state in late 2017 to conduct a study that will determine whether the plant needs to be replaced or repaired.
There’s $20 million in the state budget to fix immediate concerns — but first it needs to be approved by legislators.
“Well, it’ll keep the plant going,” Porter said of the potential for $20 million. “It will keep the doors open.”
Keeping the doors open isn’t a longterm solution to an ongoing problem that’s flowing underground in Niagara Falls and nearly every municipality in New York State.
They need help — and the price tag is unattainable.
“Well, we don’t have it,” Porter said. “Niagara Falls and the ratepayers do not have that kind of money. And we could not borrow that money and pay it back.”
The Niagara Falls Water Board had a difficult 2017, but they continue to operate a plant that was never intended for its current purpose. As a result, and in addition to the ongoing study, the board kicked off this week a new initiative.
The “WIN Initiative” is a public awareness campaign that hopes to better educate the community — residents, business owners and city leaders — about the need for clean water, and the treatment plant’s role in it.
The board is expected to host a series of public forums in the coming months to gather feedback from the community about protecting the Great Lakes watershed. The initiative will also reach out to other municipalities across the Great Lakes region to learn and share best practices.
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