The Niagara County Legislature will be holding a special meeting Thursday night to call for a criminal investigation into the black wastewater discharged into the Niagara River.
Niagara County lawmakers are expected to vote on a resolution that would call on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), New York State Attorney General and Niagara County District Attorney to investigate the actions of the Niagara Falls Water Board. They want authorities to investigate whether possible criminal charges are warranted.
The legislature is also calling for removal of the water board members. The board is apparently split between three members on one side and two who are not being involved in what happened.
The black discharge occurred July 29th at the base of the Falls during the height of summer tourist visits, into an area surrounding a Maid of the Mist boat.
The Falls Water Board said a preliminary review determined it was human error when workers let a pump at the sedimentation basin run too long as they were emptying it at the wastewater treatment site.
The State Department of Environmental Conversation has already launched an investigation. The County Legislature will meet at 6 p.m. Thursday.
U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, while stopping in Western New York earlier this week, was asked about the black muck. He said there should be an investigation.
"What happened was awful. Obviously it was a mistake, but there ought to be a full investigation to make sure it doesn't happen again, period. Niagara Falls is beautiful and that gunk that was in there was a terrible thing," remarked Schumer.
Wednesday the Falls Water Board issue a three-page statement from members Dan O’Callaghan, Nick Forster and Renae Kimble. The statement blasts the GOP majority of the Niagara County Legislature for calling for removal of the board and superintendent of operations Bob Drury.
Board Chair O'Callaghan did not return a WBFO call requesting comment. Neither did Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster, who appoints board members.
The following is the full statement issued by the Niagara Falls Water Board:
"There are no doubt exceptions to Mark Twain’s maxim that “the majority is always wrong”, but it certainly seems to hold true of the GOP majority controlling the Niagara County Legislature. For proof, one needs to look no further than a televised press conference of August 3, 2017 in which Republican legislators were practically falling over each other to introduce non-binding, time-wasting resolutions condemning the NFWB, calling for the resignation of board members and executive staff, some of whom, including Superintendent of Operations Bob Drury, had zero involvement or supervisory responsibility for the recent discharge.
The vitriol of the legislators was exceeded only by their bad-timing, ill-will, misunderstanding of the facts and blatant political opportunism. The supporters of these resolutions in the legislature are worried about one thing, and one thing only; maintaining their grip on the reins of county government. That’s certainly no surprise, especially with the county Republican party pre-occupied with tracking indictments and monitoring criminal court appearances. They need control of the legislature to continue their patronage trough for ‘friends and family.”
Furthermore, isn’t it interesting that of the nine elected officials from the affected city, including city council members, county legislators, and the mayor, not a single one among them has supported or espoused the GOP’s drastic and unnecessary blood-letting demands. It must be true what they say: as a party’s problems multiply, so does their panic. At no time has that been more true for Niagara County Republican leadership than now.
On a more positive note, since constituting a new majority in March of this year, the NFWB has worked tirelessly to modernize the organization. It must be understood that we are merely an unpaid, policy-making, governing body, who hires qualified and experienced executive staff that are responsible for the day-to-day operations. Since March, our majority at the NFWB has solved dozens of lingering and neglected problems, recruited competent staff, and adopted cost saving and efficiency-oriented initiatives proposed by a new management team. Our only goal in mind is to do the best job possible for the ratepayers and water consumers of Niagara Falls.
There is no question a major incident occurred on July 29th that has caused some in the public to question our commitment. However, we can unequivocally say that there are no individuals more upset over the event than the NFWB. At our press conference we vowed to conduct a thorough inquiry, to cooperate with regulatory bodies including the DEC, EPA and law enforcement, and to make any and all operational or personnel changes to prevent it from happening again.
One of the greatest ironies with all of this is that our vast undertaking of rebuilding the NFWB was largely necessitated by the near total lack of attention to the fundamentals of operating a public water/waste-water utility by prior management. A management constituted, for the most part, by the Republican politicians now seeking to sweep us out. Instances of past ineptitude are outlined below, (updates on our solutions to the problems are in bold italics):
- Contract negotiations with the 90-member blue collar union United Steelworkers and with the Niagara County Building Trades had been stalled since 2010. Within 90 days of our new majority taking office, contracts were agreed upon and approved.
- Overtime expenses had ballooned to over $1.9 million over the last two years alone. The new board immediately recognized areas of abuse that had been overlooked, despite the seemingly coordinated effort to maximize overtime compensation (often for members of the workforce nearing retirement). Now, while necessary overtime work must still be performed, savings through tighter controls are expected to exceed $300,000 in 2017, with more than $500,000 in savings on a yearly basis after this year.
- Hiring practices were haphazard and frequently resulted in unqualified individuals becoming employed. (For example: the unqualified husband of a Republican county legislator was hired for a key human resources position.) Similarly, executive staff hires were given special preferential NY State Retirement System Tier 1 status and the equivalent of private sector “golden parachute” contracts that tied the hands of management. We approved the hiring of Jim Perry, a seasoned HR professional, who installed and instituted standards and procedures designed to clear up many back-logged labor grievances, complaints to the Public Employees Relations Board, and lingering issues with the Civil Service Commission. The practice of Tier 1 upgrades has been eliminated and contracts of employment are shorter and more evenly balanced.
- Communication with Niagara Falls city officials was essentially non-existent. Collaborative efforts have been established with a sharing of tasks and cooperation on grant applications and joint construction projects.
- Repair and replacement of city fire hydrants had been neglected to the point where public safety was jeopardized. We established a dedicated hydrant work crew along with a fully equipped “hydrant van.” Repair and replacement in progress with the number of non-working and faulty hydrants has been substantially reduced.
- A fleet with an average age of 12 years, entailing high maintenance expenses and costly time out of service. Working with Enterprise Fleet Management, vehicles were retired and turned in and a new fleet established with fuel efficient vehicles at an estimated savings over 5 years of $300,000.
- An estimated 68% of all treated water was unaccounted for, which is a percentage far greater than should have ever been tolerated. Our staff/consultants have identified and undertaken the repair of infrastructure leaks. Efforts remain ongoing.
- Absence of internal control or tracking system of inventory of NFWB assets. A system was established and implemented.
- The number of outside law firms who had contracts with the NFWB had ballooned under then General Counsel John Ottaviano. We immediately undertook a workload realignment and discharged three firms without sacrificing our ability to adequately handle legal disputes, which will generate substantial savings going forward.
- Homeowner/business owner service complaints, including frozen pipe issues, were slow in being acknowledged and even slower in being corrected. Response time on intake and correction increased by adding customer service representative and streamlining, via utilization of business software, of work allocation and scheduling.
- No attention was given to the fact that instrumentation in waste-water analysis laboratory was outdated and obsolete. Funds have been allocated for a “state of the art” lab remodel so that our employees have the best equipment possible to do their jobs.
We have made great progress in correcting the many causes of the dysfunction and have much more to do. We intend to continue our efforts to restore public confidence in the organization, insure the safety of the drinking water we deliver, properly treat waste water from homes, businesses and industry, and prevent any recurrence of incidents like that of July 29th. Being a part of this board is a privilege that none of us take lightly. Going forward, rest assured that we are committed to continuing to improve the Niagara Falls Water Board and, more importantly, the residents in the City of Niagara Falls."