Shining light on sewer overflows

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

Update: The DEC released a statement today that sewage discharges will be reported on its website. You can visit the page here. “DEC is developing regulations for a second part of the law that requires publicly owned treatment works and publicly owned sewer systems to notify the public directly of discharges.  DEC plans to release the draft regulations this fall for public comment.”

There is a good chance that thousands of gallons of untreated stormwater and sewage spill into local waterways when it rains in Buffalo and people wouldn’t have any idea it happened.

That’s all about to change, but not at the pace as originally expected.

Last year, New York lawmakers passed the Sewage Pollution Right to Know Law that requires public notification within two hours of any overflow from a publicly owned wastewater treatment plant and its system.

The law goes into effect Wednesday but regulators are a bit behind the ball.

Brian Smith, spokesman for the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said it will be a few months before the state Department of Environmental Conservation has the notification program running.

“Given the issues with staffing, funding cuts and Superstorm Sandy it is understandable that they will not be able to implement this by May 1,” Smith said. “Our organization is engaged with the DEC and we are very supportive of what they are doing and we know they are working in the direction to implement this as soon as possible. ”

Smith said the New York Alert program will be one avenue residents can be warned about combined sewer overflows.

Another new way to track overflows and best practices is through what is called the Combined Sewer Overflow Annual Report Form, which the DEC unveiled this week on its website. These forms aren’t due until next year, however.

A combined sewer system, such as what is in Buffalo, takes both sewage and stormwater into one pipe and delivers it to a wastewater treatment plant. An overflow can happen during rainfall to protect the treatment plant and private homes from flooding.

Credit: Buffalo Sewer Authority

Credit: Buffalo Sewer Authority

On rainy days in Buffalo, more than 50 discharge pipes spew untreated sewage and stormwater into local waterways, including the Niagara and Buffalo rivers, Black Rock Canal and Scajaquada Creek. Here is a map of all of the state’s combined sewer overflow discharge points, including Buffalo.

Combined sewer systems are not uncommon and remain in roughly 730 cities. That doesn’t mean they are popular. One big concern is the concentration of combined systems near the Great Lakes.

In Buffalo, there can be as few as one overflow event to as many as 100 each year. The Buffalo Sewer Authority estimates that an inch of rainfall can produce 700,000 gallons of overflow. Up to 4 billion gallons of sewage and wastewater can overflow each year in Buffalo, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

These overflows pose a significant risk to anyone who uses local waterways for recreation, which is why environmental advocates and nonprofits pushed hard for the law’s passage.

“Raw sewage contains viruses and bacteria that really makes millions of Americans sick every single year,” Smith said. “This allows the public to make an educated decision if they want to go out fishing or swimming and make sure they are not putting their families at an unacceptable risk.”

The federal government in 1994 required sewer authorities to develop long-term control plans to minimize or eliminate the overflows.

The Buffalo Sewer Authority, after pressure from the EPA, last year submitted an updated long-term control plan to control the overflows. The EPA hasn’t officially approved the plan yet.

The authority estimates it will cost $300 million to $500 million over 19 years to make all of the changes mentioned in this control plan. Here is a list of ongoing projects.

The authority and local nonprofits also are teaming up with state and federal agencies to implement green technology that reduce the amount of stormwater that enters the combined system.