When it rains, sewage gushes into Niagara River

The Lower Niagara River is no stranger to sewer overflows.

An Investigative Post analysis of state data shows the Niagara Falls sewer system has spewed more than a half-billion gallons of raw sewage mixed with storm water into the Lower Niagara River since May 2016. Even moderate rainfall can overwhelm the sewer system, causing untreated sewage mixed with storm water to gush into the Lower Niagara.

The problem gained the attention of Governor Andrew Cuomo after a July 29 discharge turned the Lower Niagara into a black, smelly disruption for tourists on a busy Saturday at Niagara Falls State Park.  That incident was blamed on a worker error.

Sewer overflows are well known to the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the Niagara Falls Water Board.

Nonetheless, the DEC said it is investigating two separate discharges that the Niagara Falls Water Board reported Tuesday night. Those overflows totaled 3.5 million gallons.

But from May 2016 to July 2017, the Niagara Falls Water Board reported at least 83 additional sewage discharges, an Investigative Post analysis of state data found.  The total estimated volume: 545 million gallons. That’s enough to fill 800 Olympic-sized pools.

Most of these overflows are dumped into the Lower Niagara from two spots less than a mile north of the Maid of the Mist boat dock. It is unclear how these overflows affect water quality in the Lower Niagara, but the DEC said it would be gathering more information to determine what, if any, impact they have.

The Niagara Falls Water Board refused to comment for this story.

Ken Lynch, DEC’s deputy director, didn’t have many answers, either.

“When it’s reported, we investigate,” Lynch said.

He wouldn’t say, though, whether the DEC investigated the other 83 sewer overflows reported by the board since May 2016. The board is required by state law to report all of them to the DEC within two hours;  those reports are then made public through the NY-Alert system. The DEC tracks and organizes those reports in a spreadsheet available on its website.

Lynch said the DEC conducts annual reviews of each wastewater treatment plant’s sewage reports “and depending on the year and depending on the condition of the plant, we require upgrades.”

It’s unclear whether the DEC has asked the Niagara Falls Water Board to do any upgrades. The water board’s capital improvement plan includes $22 million, some of which will go to upgrading the Gorge Pumping Station that is past its recommended lifespan and sewers in the LaSalle neighborhood.