ALBANY, New York — Every year, tens of billions of gallons of raw sewage befouls waterways New York residents use for drinking, swimming and fishing. Fixing the problem will take time and money, but in the meantime, a new alert system notifies the public when a spill happens at some, but not all, of the state's sewage systems.
"These alerts give the public the opportunity to protect themselves from exposure when there's a sewage spill," said Dan Shapley, water quality program manager for Riverkeeper, which is dedicated to protecting the Hudson River. "But just as important, the alerts really raise awareness of the decaying state of our water treatment infrastructure and the need to make significant investments."
New York's "Sewage Pollution Right to Know" law passed in 2012 and was supposed to be implemented by May 2013. The state Department of Environmental Conservation put a public notification system in place, but didn't propose formal regulations until this June. Public comments on them were accepted through Monday.
The law requires plant operators to report discharges of untreated and partially treated sewage from public sewers and treatment systems to the DEC within two hours of discovery and to notify the public and adjoining municipalities within four hours.
Of particular concern are combined sewage and storm water systems where a plant's capacity can be overwhelmed during heavy rainfall, allowing untreated sewage and polluted runoff to flow into waterways. The DEC said there are such systems in 62 cities, combining for a total of 845 discharge pipes. The agency advises against swimming, boating or fishing downstream during or shortly after heavy rain, and provides a map of such sites on its web page.
The group Environmental Advocates of New York said those sewer overflows are the primary culprit for sewage pollution entering waterways, discharging about 1.2 billion gallons of raw sewage into the Hudson River in the Albany area annually and between 1.8 billion and 4 billion gallons annually into Buffalo waters.
Environmental groups are largely pleased with the regulations, but there is some criticism.
Sarah Eckel, a staff member of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said some plants are unable to meet reporting requirements because they lack the technology to do accurate, real-time reporting. The Legislature has provided $500,000 to help communities install monitoring equipment, she said.
A DEC spokesman couldn't say how many municipal systems lack the needed metering or computer modeling. Riverkeeper's Shapley said there are hundreds.
"Our original idea when we worked to pass the right-to-know law was, we wanted a monitoring law," Shapley said. "We wanted people to have the answer to the question, 'Is the water safe?' The law doesn't really do that, because there's contamination that isn't covered."
Travis Proulx of Environmental Advocates said that "If we don't have the full picture of where spills are occurring and the frequency with which they're occurring, people won't know the extent of the problem."
For sewage systems that do have metering or modeling in place, operators report spills through the web-based NY-Alert system. The reports are available to the public on DEC's website and via NY-Alert, which also provides notifications of weather warnings, highway closures, hazardous materials spills and other emergency conditions.
People get NY-Alert cell phone or e-mail messages only for cities they've signed up for; to check for spills before vacationing in another part of the state, they have to look on the DEC website.
Recent reports include 100 gallons of sewage spilled into the Oswegatchie River in Gouverneur during heavy rain on July 26 and 5,000 gallons of sewage overflow into Chautauqua Lake in Busti.
According to DEC, a quarter of the 610 sewage and waste water treatment facilities in New York state are operating beyond their useful life expectancy and many others are outdated. DEC estimates that it will cost about $36 billion over the next 20 years to meet New York's waste water infrastructure needs.
DEC Sewage Pollution Right to Know page http://on.ny.gov/1Ir0h1y