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Niagara County Legislature may seek criminal investigation of NF Water Board

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Wed, Aug 2nd 2017 11:15 pm
Weekend wastewater release 'can't be swept under the rug' - Bradt
Board, leadership 'must resign' - Wydysh
Niagara County lawmakers will be summoned to a special meeting next week to take up four resolutions that urge the leadership of the Niagara Falls Water Board to resign, and call for criminal investigations of the weekend release of black, foul-smelling wastewater at the base of Niagara Falls.
"The board's conduct here is beyond defense, and they have lost our confidence," said Niagara County Legislature Majority Leader Randy R. Bradt, R-North Tonawanda. "We will ask the Niagara County District Attorney (Caroline A. Wojtaszek) and (New York State) Attorney General (Eric T.) Schneiderman to examine the facts surrounding this matter and to determine if criminal charges should be brought."
Bradt said news reports that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation were casting doubt on Water Board claims that proper procedures were followed had prompted the decision to move forward with a package of four resolutions that seek the resignations of the entire Water Board and senior management, as well as call on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Schneiderman and Wojtaszek to investigate whether criminal charges are warranted.
An Associated Press story filed Wednesday quoted Cuomo as saying, "The original version of - 'Well, we did this and this was pursuant to a (Department of Environmental Conservation) permit' - I don't believe is true. They have a DEC permit to operate the facility, but it has to be operated in a proper way."
Bradt echoed the governor's concerns.
"The local tourism promotion agency released figures two years ago that said Niagara County tourism was an $827 million-a-year industry," Bradt said. "Since Saturday, Niagara Falls has been in every major media outlet around the country, and most around the world. The last time they got this much attention, Nik Wallenda was walking across a tightrope - and that had a massive positive economic impact on the region. We can only imagine the damage done to tourism-related businesses due to this mismanagement by the Water Board."
Bradt and Legislators Rebecca Wydysh (R-Lewiston) Kathryn Lance (R-Wheatfield) and Will Collins (R-Lockport) drafted four resolutions Wednesday after Cuomo called for a DEC investigation of the Water Board's actions.
One of those resolutions directly calls on Niagara Falls Water Board Chairman Dan O'Callaghan and members Gretchen Leffler, Colleen Larkin, Renae Kimble and Nicholas Forster to resign. That resolution also seeks the resignations of Water Board Executive Director Rolfe Porter, Wastewater Chief Operator Joe LaGamba, and Superintendent of Operations Bob Drury, as well as legal counsel for the board.
"The failure of leadership here is astonishing," Wydysh said. "As a legislator who represents a community that was downstream from this release, I'm concerned about the wanton disregard for my neighbors' health. People in Lewiston have a right to know why this material was flushed into the Niagara River, when the DEC is now saying it should not have been."
Wydysh cited a news report on radio station WBFO that quoted DEC Spokesman Sean Mahar as saying the discharge was "clearly" a violation of water quality standards.
"The violation of the state's water quality standards are subject to fines, but this investigation is very much ongoing right now, so it's hard to say exactly what any enforcement actions could be levied against the water treatment board," Mahar told WBFO.
Bradt said he is confident that the legislature has the votes to pass all four resolutions.
On Thursday afternoon, the Water Board issued a statement that read, in part, Porter and operation staff met earlier in the day to discuss the operational and human factors that resulted in the discharge of what has been characterized as "inky water" into the lower Niagara River on Saturday.
"The NFWB's discussions were open, candid and informative during this meeting and it is cooperating fully with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. It will continue to do so and we expect further meetings and discussions in the coming days. The NFWB again apologizes to anyone inconvenienced by the discharge, including tourists, businesses and residents.
"The NFWB is continuing its comprehensive internal review of this incident, including fact-finding and legal review of applicable statutory and regulatory requirements for the operation of its plant. It will work with NYSDEC and other regulatory agencies to address any technical or operational issues uncovered in its investigation in order to prevent reoccurrence of the conditions of concern. This will include continuing investment to maintain and upgrade its wastewater treatment plant, originally constructed by the City of Niagara Falls in the early 1970s, review of plant processes and operating procedures, and continuing investment in personnel and training."
Mayor Paul A. Dyster issued the following statement regarding the discharge of wastewater into the lower Niagara River: "Niagara Falls Police in partnership with the New York State Department of Conservation are actively investigating the matter. No further comments will be made until the investigation has run its course. While it is important to note that we regularly partner on items of importance to residents, the Niagara Falls Water Board operates independently of city government. I am disappointed in the unfortunate lapse in communication regarding Saturday's incident and look forward to the board's full cooperation in their efforts to rectify the situation."
On Thursday, Congressman Brian Higgins said he is writing to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calling for a full investigation. He expressed support for the ongoing review by the DEC, but questioned whether the incident may have violated national and international regulations.
"While I have full confidence in the DEC, given the importance of this water body and its international nature, I write today to request that the EPA investigate this discharge, as well to determine if there was any violation of the Clean Water Act of 1972 (as amended), its associated regulations, or the United States' obligations under the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 or subsequent international agreements," Higgins said.
Higgins, a member of the Congressional Great Lakes Task Force, added, "This discharge is disconcerting not only because of the importance of the tourism industry in Niagara Falls, but also because of the significant and unique ecosystem in the Niagara Gorge downstream of the falls. The preservation of vital resources like these are among the agency's most important responsibilities."

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