NIAGARA FALLS, NY — Amid the furor created by an errant sewage discharge which blackened a portion of the Niagara River below the world famous falls, and the sanctions announced by the state on Thursday as a result, there remains a more pervasive and perhaps even more harmful environmental issue at the Niagara Falls Waste Water Treatment Plant.
And it’s been occurring on a regular basis since the plant began operation more than 40 years ago.
The black water discharge of July 29, according to environmental officials, was a one-time event which had no harmful effect on fish, wildlife, or humans.
However, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation is also now probing the frequent discharges of raw sewage from the plant into the river whenever Niagara Falls experiences a heavy rain.
“It’s been going on since 1975. It's not new," said Nicholas Forster, a current member of the Niagara Falls Water Board.
The Water Board acts as a board of directors, supervising the production and delivery of drinking water in Niagara Falls and the operation of the sewage plant there.
During periods of heavy rain, storm water runoff, combined with the sanitary sewage also being sent to the plant, simply overwhelms its 60 million gallon/per hour treatment capacity.
“We can’t stop the rain, and this plant just doesn't have the capacity to take all that water," said Daniel O’Callaghan, who was installed as chairman of the Water Board in February.
When that occurs, untreated sewage is dumped into the river, and it happens frequently.
It's also something the DEC has not only known about, but authorized, since the plant opened in the 1970s.
“We are trying to identify a number of things which might help solve this problem which people are no longer willing to accept and which, quite frankly, neither are we,” Forster said.
One idea under consideration is the installation of tanks, which in the event of rain could store millions of gallons of sewage.
The sewage would then be held in the tanks until such time as the rest of the plant catches up, and then it could be treated instead of just letting it go into the river raw.
The cost, by Forster’s estimation, would be somewhere around $30 million to $40 million.
“The problem we have here is there’s not a lot of available space on the current property to put in such tanks,” said O’Callaghan, who also expressed a belief that elected officials, quick to grouse about the problem, have done little to help solve it.
“Our NY State Senator, our State Assemblyman, and the majority of the Niagara County Legislature have been quick to call for our heads and want us removed,” said O’Callaghan. “But I don’t see any of them coming over here asking what they can do to help."
When visiting Niagara Falls on Thursday, and blasting the water board for the black water incident, Gov. Andrew Cuomo mentioned the state has committed to spend more than $2 billion for clean water infrastructure.
O’Callaghan and Forster expressed a hope that next time Cuomo comes to Niagara Falls, he might put some of that money where his mouth is, by announcing a portion will be used to address the problem and fix the plant.