In December 2013, 24 million gallons of sewage leaked into the Mohawk River from two damaged sewer pumps in the city of Amsterdam.
But the public didn't find out about the massive spill until April of this year.
The city and the state officials blamed miscommunication on the failure to adequately notify the public about the spill.
Untreated sewage contains bacteria, parasites and viruses, which can cause sickness and disease in people and wildlife. So it's important that nearby municipal officials and the public learn of such spills as quickly as possible.
A proposed change in state Environmental Conservation Law — the Sewage Pollution Right to Know Act (don't be distracted by its sexy name) — will make it a lot easier for the public to find out about such spills by expanding how, when and to whom spills are reported.
In the Amsterdam case, the city notified the state Department of Environmental Conservation as required. But the message got lost in translation and the DEC didn't alert the public. In addition, because city officials weren't legally required to notify anyone else about the spill, including the media or neighboring communities, they didn't. So the spill stayed a virtual secret.
This action changes all that. Under the new rule, the public entity responsible for the spill will have to notify the DEC and public health authorities within two hours when untreated or partially treated sewage leaks into any water body. Current law says the spills only have to be reported when they affect swimming areas during swimming season, shell-fishing operations and public drinking supplies.
The new law not only requires notification regardless of the body of water it impacts, but also now requires operators to continue the notifications each day until the discharge stops.
Most importantly, the new rule requires that notification be made within four hours to the chief public official where the discharge occurred, as well as to adjoining municipalities and the general public through "appropriate electronic media." That means TV, radio and newspapers, for publication on their websites.
If municipalities comply with the law, we won't have a repeat of the Amsterdam incident or any of the other unreported or underreported sewer spills.
These changes will allow the public and municipalities that get their drinking water from contaminated water bodies to take appropriate mitigation steps very quickly, and they will spotlight faulty sewer systems so necessary steps can be taken to prevent future spills.
The public comment period for the proposed rule ends at 5 p.m. Friday.
Let the DEC know you support these important changes by emailing your thoughts to: [email protected]