ALBANY — “There is a sacred bond between clean water and public health that is being broken,” said Liz Moran, a water and natural resources associate with Environmental Advocates of New York (EANY), at a press conference on Thursday, March 10 at the Legislative Offices Building in Albany. “In 2012, state legislators passed the Sewage Pollution Right to Know Act, a common-sense law that says, knowing the public health dangers, if a sewage discharge occurs, the public must be immediately notified.”
Moran was announcing a new report documenting the “rampant” under-reporting of sewage overflow events that can negatively impact public health when raw sewage enters public recreational or drinking water sources. Issues can occur when heavy rains or thawing ice overwhelm Combined Sewer Systems (CSS), where stormwater and wastewater enter a treatment plant at the same point. According to the EPA, CSS are generally able to direct all wastewater to the plant where it is treated waterborne pathogens, parasites and other disease-causing organisms like E. coli and Rotavirus before being safely returned to a local waterbody. However, in 2004, the EPA estimated that conservatively, there were as many as 5,000 cases of illness that could be attributed to exposure to overflows near recreational areas such as beaches. A 2013 analysis of beach water samples taken by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that 13 percent of the samples taken in New York state exceeded the EPA’s standards for safe human activity.
Due to inadequate implementation of the Sewage Pollution Right To Know Act, according to EANY, the data on the DEC website accounts for only a fraction of the discharges that occur throughout the state, and those that have been reported are frequently incomplete—a full 85 percent failed to include required overflow volumes. Here in the Capital District, the Capital District Regional Planning Commission estimated in 2009 that the Capital District releases as much as 1.2 billion gallons of untreated sewage into the Hudson River annually, yet only reported 1.2 million over a two year period. Annually, the amount of discharged untreated sewage that is reported to the DEC is estimated to represent only .002 percent of the 28 billion gallons that EANY said ultimately ends up in the New York Harbor.
According to reports released by the DEC in 2008 and the Office of the State Comptroller in 2014, there is a staggering funding deficit for addressing sewer infrastructure needs in a system that has begun to show signs of its age. Along with its reported findings, EANY released three recommendations that they feel will ensure that New York residents are adequately informed of potential contamination risks. Increased funding for additional staff and more resources to enforce regulations and an investment of $800 million a year in the New York State Water Infrastructure Investment Act of 2015 (NYSWIIA), as well as the extension of the NYSWIIA beyond it’s three-year life span. Additionally, EANY advocates restricting the legislation so that no exemptions are granted, expanding notification areas to include downstream regions and other potentially affected areas, immediate reporting of all discharges and a “more robust” public notification effort.
In the executive summary of the EANY report, entitled “Tapped Out: New York’s Clean Water in Peril,” environmental advocates claim that, “The spirit of the law is simple: when potential contamination from raw sewage occurs, the public should be notified.” It is not enough, they say, for the public to find out that they should be boiling their water or avoiding favorite recreational areas “after-the-fact.” The law also has had the effect of highlighting important funding shortfalls. A lack of investment in New York’s drinking and wastewater infrastructure over several decades, said Moran, has created “an aging and failing system which dumps tens of billions of gallons of raw sewage into local waterbodies every year.”
In the Town of Colonie, sewage discharges happen with less regularity than neighboring urban areas, due to having separate stormwater and sewage systems, but failing water infrastructure is still a major concern and public officials say that any additional funding from state or federal governments would be put to good use. A sewer main buried under Albany Shaker Road, for instance, which was originally built using inferior materials, has been causing ongoing headaches for the town’s Department of Public Works. While the main is buried far enough into the ground that the breaks are not an immediate threat to public safety, such issues still need to be immediately addressed—the latest was deemed an emergency by the Town Board last week so that emergency funds could be used for repairs.
There are occasional instances, said Commissioner of Public Works Jack Cunningham, when heavy rainfall will “infiltrate” the sewer system, causing the sort of overflows that the town is required to report under the Sewage Pollution Right To Know Act, but he said that those instances are not specific to any one part of town, often surging up through manholes or occurring at pump stations at random. Another cause of untreated overflow is the occasional sewer main blockage but, again, said Cunningham, no one area of the town tends to be more affected than any other.
Whenever the discharges do occur, Cunningham said that he is alerted within two hours and that he faithfully reports each event to the DEC per the legislation. “It’s a new law,” he said. “It was only enacted two years ago but, to my knowledge, we have been in 100 percent compliance. We are very proactive in complying with DEC regulations.”
But, he added, “Any support we get from the federal or state government to help us afford improvements to the water and sewer infrastructure, we would welcome that in a flash. The issue that we have, particularly when it comes to the sewer system is that, in the 50s, 60s and 70s, the government had programs to encourage municipalities to build this infrastructure so that people weren’t using well and septic systems. So, we built this entire system and we’re managing it but, as it ages out, it needs to be replaced and there’s no more federal or state money so that burden all starts to fall to the taxpayers and it becomes very difficult—especially with a 2 percent tax cap and all the other property tax issues we’re dealing with—to be able to maintain that entire system the way you’d want to. So we’ll take any money that they want to send to municipalities; we’ll take whatever we can get.”