Report: State underestimates sewage pollution


New York’s waterways are far more polluted with raw sewage than the state Department of Environmental Conservation has been reporting under a disclosure law passed in 2012, according to a new report from environmentalists.

The state’s Sewage Pollution Right to Know Act requires that the public be notified whenever there is an overflow of raw sewage or other pollutants in any New York waterway.

The database that the state environmental agency created in response to the law reported 2,696 sewage overflow incidents, totaling approximately 160 million gallons of raw sewage contamination, between May 2013 and June 2015.

But according to the report Environmental Advocates of New York released March 10, the state agency is undercounting the amount of sewage spilled by a wide margin.

“New York’s wastewater infrastructure is in a crisis,” said Elizabeth Moran, author of the report., titled “Tapping Out.”

Out of the 2,696 reported sewage overflows, only 15 percent of the reports included an estimate of how much sewage was discharged, according to the report. That meant that 85 percent of what the DEC actually does report leaves out the volume of sewage contamination. According to Tapping Out, if all of their reports accounted for volume, the data would show well over a billion gallons of sewage being discharged into New York’s waterways.

The DEC reported in 2008 that $36 billion needs to be invested into the state’s wastewater infrastructure for repairs and upgrades. However, at a Joint Legislative Budget Hearing on Environmental Conservation in 2015, former DEC Commissioner Joseph Martens said he expects that number to have grown significantly since then.

“The state must step up to fully implement the Sewage Pollution Right to Know Act, as well as invest $800 million in community grants annually to fix and upgrade New York’s clean water infrastructure to move us towards a clean water future where the Sewage Pollution Right to Know Act is no longer necessary,” Moran said.

There has been a pattern of loose implementation of the Right to Know Act since its passage, according to the report. It took the DEC a year to release the first draft regulations.

“Until final regulations are in place, there are no clear requirements on what should be reported and when, how, and what penalties exist for failing to do so,” said Moran. Reporting these sewage discharges remains largely voluntary, Moran explained.

According to “Tapping Out,” DEC’s Division of Water has 30 percent less staff than it did 25 years ago, and merely a seventh of the budget, despite the increase in that particular division’s responsibilities since then.

The DEC did not respond to inquiries on the issue or the report. In the report, Moran said the findings were “not an indictment of the state DEC.”

“Instead, findings underscore how a lack of state investment renders it impossible to get at the root of the infrastructure problem,” said Moran said. “Or fully implement a law as basic and common-sense as the Sewage Pollution Right to Know Act.”

Moran made recommendations for the DEC and the Sewage Pollution Right to Know Act in her report, including DEC staff funding increases, no exemptions in the reporting of sewage discharges, and an $800 million investment into the state’s water infrastructure.

Photo: Courtesy of New York Pictures.

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