Wet Weather Pollution Threat Grows as DEC Shrinks

Wet weather pollution events have become a recent focus of EPA and DEC water quality regulators as runoff after heavy rains carries sediment and toxic debris from construction and industrial sites into water bodies, and heavy rainfall causes treatment plants to release raw sewage into waterways.

To better manage water pollution in the state, DEC introduced general water discharge permits to cover stormwater runoff from sources such as construction and industrial sites, municipal storm sewers, and Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs, or factory farms). The addition of wet weather discharges to the state’s water discharge permit program has significantly expanded New York’s oversight of pollution sources, increasing the number of permitted entities by 63% between 1999 and 2012.

But this expanded responsibility has come without any increase in DEC staff or resources to actually monitor and enforce permit compliance. In fact, DEC divisions that oversee water discharge permitting have incurred significant reductions in staff levels, with the divisions of air and water quality management losing more than a quarter of their workforce since 2008.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the number of water discharging facilities inspected by DEC declined by 74% between 2009 and 2012, with only 5% of permitted facilities receiving an inspection in 2012. In addition, DEC has watched its capacity to perform its own effluent testing dwindle and disappear as resources dried up in the state budget.

Now, the stressed enforcement team at DEC is seeing its responsibilities expand once again as it strives to manage pollution events stemming from an ageing and deteriorating sewage infrastructure.

In 2008, DEC sounded the alarm on New York State’s outstanding need for large-scale wastewater infrastructure investment; estimating that $36.2 billion would be required to upgrade the state’s failing wastewater infrastructure over the next twenty years.

Failure to upgrade antiquated sewer systems poses significant risks to New York’s water quality.

Recently released preliminary data from DEC’s Wastewater Collection System Survey show:

·        52% of all facilities built before 1925 have more than one overflow annually.

·        63% of all facilities built between 1925 and 1950 have more than one overflow annually.

·        By contrast, only 19% of all facilities built after 1990 have more than one overflow annually.

With DEC pulling its inspectors out of the water and ageing sewage systems dumping more pollution in, New York may be in for a rough go if more resources aren’t devoted to managing this environmental concern that is increasing by the day.

For more information on DEC’s enforcement of water discharge permits please read Environmental Advocate’s report: Turning a Blind Eye to Illegal Pollution.

Author: Andrew Postiglione