The Niagara County Legislature raised the stakes on the Niagara River black sludge spill by seeking criminal investigations on local, state and federal levels.
The nine Republican members of the Legislature who showed up for Thursday night's special meeting voted unanimously to seek criminal probes.
While state Department of Environmental Conservation is actively investigating the case, the Niagara Falls Water Board says it was human error that dumped inky, smelly waste from the sewage treatment plant into the river at the height of a summer tourist Saturday afternoon July 29. Images of the black sludge flowing into the green water raced around the world.
Jeff Flach, whose tourist hostel is within a mile of the dump pipe, said there have been odors before.
"For several years now, in the summer, we have been having this mysterious odor," Flach said. "Our mayor started a task force to investigate that. They've never provided us any findings. Then we had this catastrophic incident just a few weeks ago and I was really disappointed that we've known this infrastructure exists. We've known that they do routine maintenance and that could have been the cause of the odor."
Although no Democratic members of the Legislature attended the meeting, Legislature Majority Leader Randy Bradt said this is not political - that is, Republican legislators against an overwhelmingly Democratic Niagara Falls. Instead, he said, this is a push for accountability, especially because of the probable effect on the tourism business.
"All we're doing as a legislative body is asking the tough questions, making sure whoever or whatever can be held accountable for whatever is done," said Bradt. "I am not an attorney nor claim to be. That's why we're passing off to the people who do that job - the Attorney General, EPA, the District Attorney - to see if there is something there."
Flach called the situation "aggravating."
"Like I said, we've had this in the past, this smell, usually at night," he said. "We start smelling at nine to 10 o'clock at night and it lingers until two, three in the morning - and it was a mystery. If you go back and look at the media record in 2015, our mayor started a task force to investigate this. No word on what that investigation results were, what they actually investigated."
Shortly before the meeting, the Niagara Falls Water Board released "a formal informational response" to the state DEC about the incident. It came from Board Executive Director Rolfe Porter.
“In continuing with our extensive examination of all aspects of the July 29th incident, we have compiled various documents, reports and data for the NYS DEC, which chronicle overall wastewater operational readings that weekend.
"While the official correspondence was confidential to the NYSDEC, the enclosure was provided as part of ongoing efforts to work collaboratively with state and federal agencies in reviewing equipment readings, summary reports and facility water quality monitoring findings in and around the incident date.
“Additionally, we have advised the department that if Sedimentation Basin 5 has to be dewatered for any purpose, the NFWB will not discharge the contents of that basin directly to the chlorine contact basin as was done on July 29th, until further notice.
"The NFWB will continue to provide periodic public and ratepayer updates on this matter as information becomes available. Updates will be available on the NFWB’s website at www.NFWB.org."