DEC: Niagara Falls Water Board violated water quality standards

Aug 25, 2017

New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos Friday announced that the Niagara Falls Water Board violated water quality standards as a result of an August 15 combined sewer overflow discharge that caused a substantial visible contrast to the natural conditions in the Niagara River. The state issued a Notice of Violation to the water board.

As a result of the notice, the DEC is directing the Water Board to:

  • provide a technical evaluation of its wastewater treatment plant and sewage system
  • identify short-term measures to improve the operation of wastewater systems and collection systems
  • conduct a longer-term evaluation of system upgrades, including the ability to capture and treat increased amounts of wet weather such discharges.

Two recent sewage discharges into the Niagara River at the base of Niagara Falls caused visible changes in water quality.
Credit WBFO File Photo

The DEC said penalties associated with the violation range up to $37,500 per day, per occurrence.

“New York reserves the right to pursue those who violate water quality standards to protect the public and the environment,” said DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos. “We are directing the Niagara Falls Water Board to provide all of the engineering information and data necessary to determine how and why this violation occurred. DEC will now investigate into all appropriate measures to prevent further violations from happening.”

The DEC regulates all wastewater treatment plants in New York State and monitors combined sewer overflow discharges. In addition, the owners of publicly owned treatment works are required to report any noncompliance with state permits and the Sewage Pollution Right to Know law requires reporting of all events to the public.

At the Governor's direction, the DEC is also conducting a comprehensive investigation into the July 29 discharge of black water and closely monitoring the actions by the Niagara Falls Water Board. Earlier this week, the Governor directed the DEC to inform the Water Board to cease any discharges from the sediment basin until the investigation is closed. The Governor said a report on the July 29 discharge is due September 1.

The Falls Water Board released a statement Friday afternoon blaming the overflow on heavy rain and outdated infrastructure. The board said it was immediately reported to the DEC as required by law. 

The following is the full statement submited by the water board:

"Today the NFWB received notice of violation from the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) related to water quality standards surrounding an August 15th wet weather event that occurred in Niagara County. This specific volume overflow situation was immediately self-reported via the SPDES permit and NY Alert System, as a result of applicable Sewage Pollution Right To Know law obligations.

The NFWB is currently in the process of reviewing the violation notice, but can clarify that the root cause of such overflow occurrences—of which the NYSDEC is well aware and has been working with the NFWB on—is a direct result of outdated infrastructure and system design limitations that impact overall facility capacity during heavy volume periods. The NFWB also has no way of controlling for color or turbidity with respect to the overflow water during a wet weather event.

Extensive efforts remain underway by the NFWB, AECOM and other engineering resources to identify potential short and long-term solutions to mitigating the existing facility limitations that cause such discharge and overflow situations along the Niagara River.

The NFWB maintains its commitment to meeting the September 1st report issuance deadline proposed by the NYSDEC and will continue to work collaboratively with the department and other government entities to reach proactive solutions to achieve more effective regional storm and wastewater management.

In the last several months, over $1 million has been committed by the NFWB toward improvements to current treatment facilities, including efforts to enhance Sediment Basin 5 and other key system components and equipment. The board has also identified roughly $6.9 million for 2018 system upgrades as part of ongoing capital improvements, which also follow more than $8 million in system enhancement funds spent in recent years. NYSDEC has retained active knowledge of all such improvements and will continue to be notified of related work on real-time basis. NYSDEC specifically has been involved in monitoring wastewater treatment plant operations since the City of Niagara Falls constructed the existing plant in the 1970’s. NYSDEC has approved nearly all upgrade and renovation projects at the wastewater treatment plant, including approving the 2004 contract pursuant to which the pump involved in the July 29th incident was installed.

From an overall environmental impact mitigation perspective, the NFWB maintains strong support for massive—and overdue—state and federal investment in capital infrastructure improvements at outdated wastewater treatment facilities across the Great Lakes watershed.

True, lasting, state-of-the art solutions to the challenges facing aging wastewater treatment systems may be too costly for localities to fund, and will require partnership and participation with state and federal elected officials.

The NFWB will continue to provide periodic public and ratepayer updates on overflow and other discharge matters as such information becomes available. Updates will be available at www.NFWB.org."