Your Right to Know About Sewage Pollution

Closed beaches. No fishing advisories. These are common occurrences, and frequently the result of contaminated waterways from sewage spills or storm driven overflows. In fact, each year tens of billions of gallons of untreated sewage fouls New York's water.

Buffalo area waterways, for instance, are notoriously susceptible to sewage pollution, and the impacts have a human and economic toll. It is suspected that a local soccer coach tragically died after unknowingly swimming in bacteria laden water last year. Syracuse, meanwhile, has 62 sewage outfalls that dump stormwater and often untreated sewage into Onondaga Lake.

In New York City alone, it’s estimated that 28 billion gallons of sewage enters local water bodies per year.

These realities led to the Legislature’s 2012 passage of the Sewage Pollution Right to Know Act – a critical and common-sense law that says if sewage spills into local waterways that New Yorkers use for drinking, swimming, fishing, etc., the people in impacted communities be notified.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has proposed regulations to implement the law which has raised concerns amongst advocates and the public (details are outlined below).

See our official public comments on the proposal here.

The public has until July 31 to tell DEC to go further than is currently proposed. We encourage legislators, advocates and the public to file comments with the DEC and to push for these key improvements:

  • No exemptions for reporting spills. Many Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) are exempt from reporting spills. CSOs are the systems found in most urban areas, and can overflow even in light rain as wastewater and sewage enter the same line. CSOs are the primary culprit of sewage pollution entering our waterways. For instance, it is estimated that in the Capital Region alone CSOs account for approximately 1.2 billion gallons of raw sewage discharged into the Hudson annually.
  • Notify potentially impacted communities. The law states that impacted communities should know when public health is at risk. However, in the draft rules only the communities in which the spill occurs and those directly adjacent are notified, ignoring that oftentimes these spills enter waters used by many communities downstream.
  • Immediate reporting. Proposed rules provide municipalities a 2 to 4 hour window for reporting when a spill has occurred. However, when it is learned that a spill has occurred, reporting should happen immediately.
  • Broader public notification. The DEC makes public notifications through the NY-Alert system. But notifications are only known to people who actively seek them out and who navigate a confusing sign-up form. Environmental Advocates believes the outreach should be more robust, with local media being alerted at the same time a report is filed with the DEC, and that an ongoing public awareness campaign be developed to educate New Yorkers about sewage pollution notifications through NY-Alert, and how to sign up.

It is clear that the state must get to the root of the problem, which is our outdated and dangerous drinking water and sewage infrastructure. The DEC, in fact, says that communities are facing more than $36 billion in unmet clean water needs over the next 20 years. Earlier this year, the Legislature took the lead and implemented a clean water infrastructure program within the state budget – including a $200 million investment over three years. It’s a great first step. Fixing our pipes will require a long-term, robust financial commitment. Which is why it is so urgent and important that DEC adequately implement the Sewage Pollution Right to Know Act. Until the day comes when sewage pollution is no longer a health concern, the public has the right to know when a spill occurs. Lives depend on it.