NIAGARA FALLS, NY — For the first time, members of the Niagara Falls Water Board are answering questions about the infamous sewer discharge which turned a portion of the Niagara River black below the world famous Falls.
The discharge, which emanated from the Waste Water Treatment plant and which has been blamed on operator error, occurred on July 29, during a weekend at the height of the summer tourist season.
Water Board Chairman Dan O’Callaghan and board member Nicholas Forster also spoke publicly for the first time about the sanctions announced Thursday by NY Governor Andrew Cuomo and the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) as a result of the incident.
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.
O’Callaghan and Forster said they were blindsided by the Governor coming to town to publicly lambaste the Water Board and call into question its competence.
Cuomo was particularly critical of the plant’s operation, saying it was marked by “bad systems, bad procedures, and bad training.”
“Some of the things he said were accurate, at least historically,” said O’Callaghan.
But he insisted much has changed since he became chairman in early 2017.
“We immediately knew there were a lot of issues here," O’Callaghan said, conceding that in recent years there was indeed insufficient training, a lack of operating procedure and maintenance neglected.
“We inherited a disaster here,” said Forster, noting that they even discovered an entire box of mail unopened from when it was delivered to the plant 3 years before.
On the night he was installed as chairman, O’Callaghan and the new board majority took swift action by firing several top managers.
But then came the July 29 discharge, which gained worldwide attention and raised the ire of Cuomo, the state’s top elected official.
And it happened on their watch.
"Something like that should have never happened…we’re not proud that it did at all,” O’Callaghan said.
On the day in question, one of the plant’s five, large sediment basins was being drained to make needed repairs.
However, the standard procedure is to stop pumping it out at a certain point, so the thickest, blackest, carbon filled sludge on the bottom isn't discharged.
According to the Water Board, an operator and a trainee, assigned to the task, had been called away to attend to another matter at the plant…and either forgot, or neglected to get back in time to shut off the pump.
"Obviously it was an operator error," O’Callaghan said glumly.
In response, the state has ordered that no procedure can be conducted in the future without being supervised by the DEC such work proceed here unless supervised by the DEC.
“We welcome that,” said Forster. “We have no issue with a state regulatory agency coming in and looking at the process."
Nor do they have problems with the state demanding the entire staff at the plant undergo re-training.
“We had already been doing that,” Forster said. “So there was no need for the Governor to tell us that…but we appreciate his comments.”
They do have concern, however, with the $50,000 fine being issued by the state as a result of the incident because it will be charged to ratepayers.
“We’re really not happy about that because the state is taking that money away from ratepayers by fining the Water Board…essentially they are fining the people of Niagara Falls and it’s not fair,” O’Callaghan said.
At the same time, though, O’Callaghan said ratepayers shouldn’t be in fear of being stung again through an incident such as this.
“There are measures in place to make sure to make sure something like this doesn’t happen and we're gonna move forward," O’Callaghan said.
The action taken by the DEC thus far is only in regard to the black water discharge.
A separate investigation is being undertaken, into numerous overflow discharges that send raw sewage into the river on a regular basis when it rains.