NIAGARA FALLS, Ont. - A few weeks ago, Mike Strange competed in the Man-A-Mile relay run, a historic Canadian road race that guides participants through the scenic Niagara Region of Southern Ontario. The race ends in Niagara Falls, on the doorstep of one of the world's most famous attractions.
During the race, though, Strange stared into the Niagara River and noticed something. It'd happened again. Raw sewage had spilled into the water, turning part of the river dark and causing a stench that has become so notorious over the past few months. This smelly, discolored discharge has been overflowing from the wastewater treatment plant on the New York side -- typically after heavy rainfall -- and it's been flowing straight toward Canada.
Strange, who just so happens to be a member of the city council in Niagara Falls, Ontario, is now demanding answers from the Niagara Falls Water Board, the American agency responsible for the outflow.
"We just want to get this resolved on both sides," Strange said. "It's not good for either country."
The Water Board, which has drawn sharp criticism from Governor Cuomo and the state Department of Environmental Conservation, has desperately pleaded for upgrades to outdated infrastructure. The agency's leadership believes state and federal investment in capital improvements could help control the sewage overflows, and they have promised the public they're working to identify short-term and long-term solutions.
"We understand and appreciate all those parties — both American and Canadian — who are attempting to shine a light on this issue," the Water Board said in a statement.
But Strange said he's not satisfied with the Water Board's handling of the situation.
He's not alone. Wayne Gates, a Member of Provincial Parliament in Ontario, addressed the council Tuesday with the very same concerns. Gates is essentially the Canadian equivalent of a state lawmaker, so he wrote a letter to the province's Environment Minister, asking for an investigation into how the sewage discharge has affected water on the Canadian side.
Gates has also addressed the Parliament of Ontario about this issue, and he said he's had a personal conversation with Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne.
"It's unacceptable. We have to protect our environment, we have to protect our water source, and this has to stop. We have to make sure we heighten awareness and put pressure on the Niagara Falls Water Board to fix the problem," Gates said, echoing many of his counterparts in the environmentally-conscious New Democratic Party. "The Water Board never took this seriously from Day One."
The first high-profile discharge incident happened on July 29, which generated international headlines and led to a fine from the state DEC. The Water Board attributed that mistake to human error and has repeatedly apologized.
The subsequent discharge incidents, however, can be attributed to the infrastructure issues and the heavy rain, according to the Water Board's public statements over the past several weeks. Overflows are not necessarily a new phenomenon, either.
But ever since that July 29 incident, tourists have started to notice the sewage in the Niagara River. Even an American customs agent remarked on Tuesday night that he can smell the discharge from the border crossing at the Rainbow Bridge, adding that passengers seem to make comments about the discharge all the time now.
"The last thing you want to do is be on the Maid of the Mist or the Hornblower and suddenly be surrounded by raw sewage that smells so bad it's making you sick on the boat," Gates said. "That's what this is about: Continuing to put pressure on Ontario government and American government to fix this problem once and for all. And if it's an infrastructure issue, no better place to spend money than making sure water is protected."
The State DEC seems to agree wholeheartedly with the criticism from Canadian officials.
In a statement, a spokesperson used very pointed language when referring to the Water Board's handling of the discharge incidents.
"Niagara Falls is an international treasure and New York is aggressively working to hold the Niagara Falls Water Board accountable for ongoing mismanagement of their Wastewater Treatment Plant," the agency said in a statement. "The state continues to demand the Water Board make immediate operational changes to improve the management of their facility and take immediate steps to identify the long term needs to improve the system."
UPDATE: The Niagara Falls Water Board released a more detailed statement about this matter on Wednesday. Read the full statement below:
"Following recent inquiries from Canadian business and governmental interests, as well as local
Western New York media, the Niagara Falls Water Board would like to reiterate its sincere and
continued focus on proper regional wastewater management.
The NFWB is committed to evaluating the current outflow situation affecting the Niagara River and will
continue to explore ways to mitigate related discharge and overflow occurrences, as best as possible,
given the infrastructure limitations that remain in place.
At the same time, the board is developing a phased-in approach to updating existing wastewater
treatment technology—an effort that commenced well prior to the July 29th blackwater discharge
incident—in order to identify the various upgrades and funding needs necessary to fully address the
outdated nature of the treatment facility. A specific identified need is to redesign the wastewater
treatment plant outfalls which is estimated to be a $20M fix.
The NFWB also disagrees with any implication of ongoing facility or operational mismanagement, and
believes such commentary grossly undercuts the serious need for large-scale investment at the
outdated wastewater facility—which is an undeniable reality."