4 billion gallons of sewage goes where?

News and analysis by Dan Telvock, Investigative Post's environmental reporter

Sewage pollution in the Niagara River is impacting water quality and has a direct effect on quality of life, said EPA Regional Administrator Judith A. Enck.
Photo copyright © 2012 Daniel Novak Photo, Buffalo Landscapes & Cityscapes

Buffalo is one of the few Great Lakes cities that doesn’t have an EPA-approved long-term control plan that takes advantage of green technologies for its wastewater.

And mayors across the nation—minus Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown and a bunch of others—were in the nation’s capital last week to discuss how the federal regulations will cost municipalities billions to improve their wastewater treatment systems.

Mike DeGeorge, the mayor’s spokesman, did not return messages seeking comment.

Buffalo Sewer Authority dumps 4 billion gallons of untreated wastewater into local waterways each year, typically after heavy rainstorms  overburden the system. Yes, that’s 4 BILLION GALLONS.

According to EPA Regional Administrator Judith A. Enck, sewage pollution in the Niagara River has degraded water quality, made local fish inedible and has created sewage odors.

“Buffalo has made improvements to its combined system in recent years, but much more must be done to protect people’s health and water quality,” Enck said in March.

As Buffalo looks to revive its waterfront, protecting the water ought to be a part of the plan, but it never comes up whenever there’s a press conference about some economic development project at the waterfront.

According to the EPA, the Buffalo Sewer Authority was required to submit by July 2001 a long-term control plan to reduce sewage discharges.

One year passed with no submission. A second year passed, and still nothing. A third year passed, and still no plan. In 2004 the authority finally submitted a plan, but it was inadequate, according to the EPA’s March 2012 legal order.

The EPA gave the authority until April 30 to submit a new plan “to ensure the combined sewer overflows comply with technology and water quality-based requirements.”

The Buffalo Sewer Authority disagreed with the EPA order, stating that it is several years into a $60 million program that the EPA approved to better control its combined sewer overflows.

A month later in April, the Buffalo Sewer Authority submitted a new long-term control plan and the EPA is reviewing it, said EPA Region 2 Public Affairs Specialist Mike Basile.

The EPA estimates it could cost the Buffalo Sewer Authority upwards of $500 million over 15 years to comply and implement new green technology. Oftentimes, these costs are wrapped into the utility bills.

The Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper submitted a plan to the Buffalo Sewer Authority last year called the Green Infrastructure Solutions to Buffalo’s Sewer Overflow Challenge. The Riverkeeper report shows how Philadelphia, Onondaga County (Syracuse) and Kansas City have implemented green infrastructure to successfully reduce its combined sewer overflows.  Some of the recommendations in the report include:
  • Establish a goal to capture and treat 95-98 percent of combined sewer overflows.
  • Change local zoning, building or utility regulations to require that all development employ green techniques that allow the first inch of rain to enter the ground, not the sewer systems. The city is currently creating a Green Code.
  • Engage the community more about water quality management.
  • Implement a long-term control plan that covers at least 25 years.
  • Participate in or lead watershed management planning efforts to address regional water quality challenges.

According to the Riverkeeper report, if Buffalo developed more green infrastructure, the city could:

  • Reduce stormwater flow to the combined sewer system by at least 45 percent and eliminate all of the combined sewer overflows for 95 percent of rain storms.
  • Free up an estimated 157 million gallons per day of treatment capacity at the Bird Island Treatment plant.
 The Buffalo Sewer Authority is piloting a green infrastructure program on Forest and Bird avenues that includes disconnecting home downspouts and using rain barrels to divert roof runoff from the sewer system, creating rain gardens and using pervious pavement along Clarendon Place.