DEC forces change

Speaking in Niagara Falls Sept. 14, Gov. Andrew Cuomo discusses the issues surrounding the Niagara Falls Water Board and the July 29 black water discharge incident.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Tuesday that he will propose the state legislature invest $20 million to overhaul Niagara Falls’ storm- and wastewater systems.

Cuomo called the funding proposal “phase one” of a strategy to protect local water quality, part of a series of proposals he will make in his January State of the State address.

The money, if allocated, will also be devoted to updates at the Michael C. O’Laughlin Wastewater Treatment Plant on Buffalo Avenue, the state of which was originally labelled a contributing factor to the infamous July release into the lower Niagara River.

The decision continues Cuomo’s watch on Cataract City infrastructure, which has remained focused since the black water discharge incident made international headlines over the summer.

Cuomo’s proposal also offers $500,000 to expedite two engineering studies of the plant’s discharge and treatment systems, a requirement of a state Department of Environmental Conservation’s consent order handed down to the Falls water Niagara Falls Water Board earlier this year.

The consent order, an agreement that certain corrective actions will be taken and monitored by the DEC, was “authorized” by the Water Board on Tuesday, the release said.

The order demands the public authority enhance staff training, update its operational manual and improve its treatment processes to avoid sludge build up in its systems, among others. The funded engineering studies, a nine-month and 15-month review, will sketch the blueprint for the initial investment, Cuomo’s administration has said.

“The impacts of our aging water infrastructure became intolerable this year after multiple discharges discolored the pristine waters at Niagara Falls,” Cuomo said in a prepared statement. “We have a responsibility to safeguard our natural resources and this administration will do everything in our power to protect the integrity of our water. This funding will help expedite these much-needed fixes, and help the Niagara Falls Water Board modernize its wastewater system.”

Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul appeared in the city to commemorate the Tuesday announcement. Later that day, Mayor Paul Dyster issued his own prepared statement, saying “there is no greater friend of or champion for Western New York than Governor Cuomo.”

“By stepping up for Niagara Falls in delivering more than $20 million to the Niagara Falls Water Board for long-needed wastewater infrastructure improvements, he is once again taking decisive action to protect our most valuable resource and keep our community strong,” he said.

Cuomo’s announcement also follows a series of substantial water main breaks in the city. As of this week, the authority’s Superintendent of Operations, Bob Drury, said his crews had responded to four major line ruptures in the past three months.

The most recent of which occurred last weekend beneath the intersection of Niagara Falls Boulevard and 47th Street resulting in an emergency contract bid and the immediate closure of Niagara Falls High School and continuing issues at Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center.

Water Board Chairman Dan O’Callaghan, called the funding a “generous investment” in the area’s “outdated wastewater system” in a prepared statement distributed by an authority spokesperson.

“It is meaningful and important that this has been recognized at the highest levels of the state government,” he said. “There is a lot of work left to do, but with the help of the state, we can think boldly and innovate. It is our goal to become a model for how Great Lakes communities deal with wastewater, and today marks a big step forward in that process.”

Cuomo’s tone in the Tuesday announcement was softer than the last time he spoke of the NFWB in September.

Local water board officials had previously attributed the internationally noticed black water discharge incident to antiquated technology within the city’s wastewater treatment plant and a “misunderstanding between employees on duty.” Cuomo called that a “boogeyman” explanation in September, saying the summer discharge “had nothing to do with the condition of the plant.”

“It’s not the age of the car, you drove it into the tree,” he said at the time, an metaphor Mayor Paul Dyster later called “apt.”

The local treatment plant, built in the 1970s, services about 52,000 residents in the region and other industrial users. The governor’s office said Tuesday in its prepared statement that it “largely” attributed the July incident to “human error.”

The consent order handed down by the DEC earlier this year put the organization under the direct watch of the agency. A DEC investigation determined the plant suffered from “inadequate training,” “lack of regular maintenance and operational issues at the facility.”

The DEC also found the waste water treatment plant’s collection system was built in a way that created difficulty in controlling stormwater and sewer overflows, the source of the July incident.

The governor’s office said on Tuesday it “anticipated that future phases will be rolled out following the conclusion” of the engineering studies.

Basil Seggos, the DEC commissioner, said the agency investigation “identified numerous improvements” necessary at the local facility, including “long-term upgrades.”

“Now, through the governor’s leadership and our binding consent order with the water board, we are providing the resources to help the (Niagara Falls Water) Board put this facility on the expedited path to compliance to protect the Niagara River into the future,” Seggos said.

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