Enviro Group Finds Uptick In Sewage Overflow Reporting Across NY

Dec 11, 2017

A New York environmental group is calling for increased water infrastructure and staff funding at the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation. The call comes after the group updated a report analyzing data on reported sewage overflows.

The funding recommendations come as part of an update to Environmental Advocates of New York’s 2016 report “Tapped Out: New York’s Clean Water in Peril.” In the report, Environmental Advocates found 2,696 sewage overflows have been reported statewide since 2013. It has been about a year since the DEC clarified the reporting requirements for the Sewage Pollution Right to Know Act. Environmental Advocates Water and Natural Resources Director Liz Moran questioned what changed in terms of reporting.

“And we were really pleased to see that reporting has increased astronomically, in fact,” Moran says. “In a one-year period, between 2015 and 2016, reporting increased by 153 percent.”

She says that from May 2013 to July 2017, 10,687 overflows were reported, amounting to more than 3.8 billion gallons of sewage being discharged into waterways around the state. Moran says this means the sewage overflow reporting act is working but that more needs to be done to help municipalities fully comply. She says there is still underreporting and 32 percent of reported overflows did not include the spill volume. In the case of an overflow in Yonkers, there was what Moran describes as an unfathomable figure.

“There was one event in Yonkers with a 12 trillion gallon overflow event reported. And I’d certainly like to believe that that just isn’t what happened, and that it was some type of reporting error,” says Moran. “But why we’re concerned about that is, what did a report like that do for staff at DEC?”

She says the report does not include the figure. In cases of apparent errors, DEC follows up with the municipality. And DEC spokesman Sean Mahar says the reporting act is for notification, not tracking.

“Once again, Environmental Advocates of New York reveals a lack of basic understanding of New York Sewage Pollution Right to Know law and wastewater treatment in general,” Mahar says. “The law was designed to alert the public in the event that discharges may be occurring rather than tracking the specific amounts or duration of overflows. In addition, the report ignores the fact that the overwhelming majority of communities are in full compliance with the law.”

Dan Shapley is water quality program director for Riverkeeper. He says the Sewage Pollution Right to Know law has been effective and important.

“The Sewage Right to Know Law has been really hugely influential in laying the groundwork and making the case for some of the infrastructure investments that we have seen over the last couple of years,” Shapley says. “And those infrastructure investments are hugely important and they’re really, in part, a result of the public being aware of the condition of our infrastructure and the real-world consequences of it, which is sewage spills.”

Environmental Advocates has a sewage action plan for 2018, which calls for providing additional staff funding for DEC. The group also wants to see financial support for communities to monitor sewage discharges. Again, DEC’s Mahar.

“Rather than investing in upgrades to monitor overflows, New York is wisely prioritizing historic investments with a $2.5 billion Clean Water Infrastructure Act to upgrade aging infrastructure and improve water quality,” says Mahar.

Environmental Advocates also calls for increasing water infrastructure grants. As for Environmental Advocates’ call to provide additional staff funding for DEC, Shapley sees a need in the agency’s Division of Water.

“And we know that the challenges with water, whether it’s sewage overflows, whether it’s PFOA or PFOS in the water supplies, whether it’s harmful algal blooms, the challenges are only greater and we as a people really want the work that the DEC is doing. We need to give the staff to make that work possible.”

Moran says last year’s state budget was a good one for water infrastructure and she hopes the next spending plan represents another building block.