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Law to require public be alerted when sewage enters waterways

Sunday, July 1, 2012
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— Throughout the state, raw sewage is dumped into rivers on a regular basis.

Many people are unaware of this, and wind up swimming, boating and fishing in recently polluted waterways, according to Tracy Brown, a water quality advocate for Riverkeeper, an environmental organization focused on protecting the Hudson River and its tributaries.

A new law intends to change this.

The law would require wastewater treatment plants to notify the public when raw or partially treated sewage overflow enters the waterways. Supporters say the law will give people the information they need to avoid exposure to unhealthy sewage pollution. One of the most contaminated sections of the Hudson River is the stretch that runs through the Capital Region.

“People understand that swimming in sewage is not a good idea,” Brown said.

The main source of sewage in local waterways are combined sewer overflows, or CSOs. CSOs occur in sewer systems where storm water and sewage travel in a single pipe, rather than two separate pipes. When it rains, the high volume of waste and water often overwhelm treatment plants, sending the runoff straight into rivers.

The new law, which is known as the Sewage Pollution Right to Know Act, passed the state Senate and Assembly on the last day of the legislative session, and awaits Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signature. He is expected to sign the bill.

“The bill will provide timely information about when there are overflows,” said Brian Smith, program and communications director for the Citizens Campaign for the Environment. “It’s a problem that’s really prevalent throughout New York.”

Under the Sewage Pollution Right to Know Act, wastewater treatment plants will be required to notify the state Department of Environmental Conservation and local municipality of a sewage discharge within two hours, and the broader public within four hours. The public notification will come via electronic press releases, and posting on the DEC website.

For the first time, the state will be required to issue an annual report on sewage discharges.

This report will contain information on where discharges occur, how long they last and the approximate volume.

The hope is that the public notification and report will raise awareness of the problem of combined sewer overflows, and make people more motivated to find ways to upgrade the state’s aging sewers, and reduce the discharges.

“We’ll be able to see when and where the overflows are happening,” Smith said. “For a long time, this problem has been out of sight, out of mind.”

Similar sewage public notification laws already exist in more than a dozen states.

Brooks said that the water quality of the Hudson has improved since the enactment of the federal Clean Water Act in 1972, and that people have been using the river in a different way as a result. “They’ve been swimming in the Hudson, and building launch sites and million dollar homes,” she said. “But the agencies and municipalities along the river aren’t necessarily managing the Hudson like a recreation area.”

This increasing recreational use of the Hudson prompted Riverkeeper to try to determine whether the water is safe, Brown said. She said the group found that there was very little public information about the quality of the river, which is one of the reasons they became interested in getting the state to pass the Sewage Pollution Right to Know Act.

“People assume that if the water isn’t safe, someone will tell them,” Brown said. But that has not been in the case. “In communities like Albany and Rensselaer, there are sewage discharges every time it rains. And then it will be sunny, and people will go out, and not realize that they’re getting into contaminated water.”

Steps are being taken to address the problem of raw and untreated sewage in the Hudson.

The Capital District Regional Planning Commission is in the process of developing a long-term plan for reducing the flow of untreated waste into the river and upgrading the area’s sewer system. The six cities involved in the project — Albany, Watervliet, Rensselaer, Troy, Cohoes and Green Island — are collectively known as the Albany Pool. The CDRPC submitted a draft plan to DEC last fall.

“Riverkeeper felt the plan was too weak, given the high contamination,” Brown said. “We’re waiting for a response to our comments.”

According to Brown, the Albany Pool, which includes the confluence of the Mohawk and Upper Hudson rivers and the federal lock and dam in Troy, has the worst water quality of any section of the Hudson River. She said that each year the combined sewer system in the Albany Pool area dumps 1.2 billion gallons of sewage and stormater into the Hudson and Mohawk.

Brown said that the Hudson River is much cleaner north of the Albany Pool, which suggests that much of the sewage contamination is coming from the Mohawk River.

Last year, Riverkeeper released a report on Hudson River sewer contamination levels that found that the level of contamination at the Dunn Memorial Bridge in Albany was unacceptable 50 percent of the time, and that the level of contamination at Island Creek/Normans Kill in Glenmont was unacceptable 65 percent of the time.

At the Mohawk River, the level of contamination was unacceptable 41 percent of the time, while the area to the north was unacceptable just 18 percent of the time.

The impetus for the Sewage Pollution Right to Know Act was a fire and explosion last summer at the North River Wastewater Treatment Plant in West Harlem, which sent at least 260 million gallons of untreated sewage into the Hudson River.

Riverkeeper said it found people swimming, kayaking and fishing in the Hudson, even though untreated sewage was flowing into the river.

The law goes into effect in 2013.

 
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