Hydrofracking may get the headlines, but it isn’t the biggest environmental challenge facing New York, state Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joe Martens said at a conference Friday.
Instead, it’s sewers — aging and crumbling wastewater collection lines that in some cases are more than a century old.
A sewer break in Newburgh two weeks ago was an “eye opener,” Martens said — and symbolic of the problem facing many communities.
The line that was leaking sewage into the Hudson River at a rate of 3 million gallons per day was built from brick and mortar and was laid in a creek bottom sometime after the Civil War. Its collapse shows what can happen to aging sewers and wastewater treatment plants, Martens said.
“I think it is the biggest environmental challenge facing New York,” he told The Business Council’s annual Industry-Environment Conference at the Gideon Putnam Resort.
While the DEC is adjusting to years of staffing cuts and conducting a long-running, in-depth review of high-volume hydraulic fracturing, Martens said the agency also knows that aging sewer systems will need an estimated $36.8 billion in investment over the next 20 years.
“It can’t be ignored, and we can’t apply a Band-Aid to it,” Martens said. “We need a solution if we’re going to achieve the ‘drinkable, fishable and swimmable’ goals of the Clean Water Act and simultaneously attract new businesses to New York state.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday awarded New York state $157 million to provide low-interest loans for wastewater improvements, but Martens said that won’t be enough.
“I can assure you available loans do not come close to covering demand,” Martens told the conference, which was attended by lawyers, engineers and consultants who specialize in addressing environmental problems for businesses.
“We want to be in a position to aggressively seek federal assistance,” he said. “A $36 billion problem is one we obviously can’t solve by ourselves.”
There are more than 600 municipally owned wastewater treatment plants in the state, and about one-third are under state order to make improvements because of past environmental violations. Martens said nearly a quarter of the equipment in the state’s treatment plants is at least 30 years old — well beyond its useful life expectancy. Thirty percent of sewage collection pipes are at least 60 years old.
“Many [communities] are just like Newburgh, with ancient delivery systems that have major inflow and infiltration problems that simply overload the treatment plant during storm events,” Martens said.
He urged the business group to help the state secure federal funding for the needed work.
On the hydraulic fracturing review, Martens said he expects a state Health Department review of the DEC’s draft findings to start soon, with no deadline for its completion.
Energy industry plans to extract gas from the Marcellus Shale under the Southern Tier are under a moratorium awaiting the DEC’s conclusions.
Martens acknowledged that the chemicals and wastewater from using hydraulic fracturing to extract natural gas from deep in the earth could have potential human health impacts — but said he believes DEC has studied them adequately.
However, among the 80,000 public comments DEC has received, “many of those were from health professionals who said we have not adequately addressed the health issues.”
“The whole emphasis was to prevent health impacts,” Martens said of the review. “We think we’ve looked very carefully at ways to minimize the potential impacts on human health.”
High-volume hydraulic fracturing uses large volumes of water injected deep into the ground to free deep natural gas deposits. Opponents contend the water volume and chemicals used in the process can contaminate drinking water supplies, while supporters contend developing a natural gas industry would create jobs and help keep energy costs down.
Underground deposits believed to contain natural gas underlie all of the Southern Tier and Catskills, as far north as Schoharie County and southwestern Albany County.