At least 20% of the publicly owned sewer systems in New York state were not reporting overflow events or registered with the electronic notification system (NY-Alert) that tracks those events, potentially putting the public at risk, according to an audit of the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) released by State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli.
“Untreated or undertreated sewage that is discharged into ground and surface waters poses serious health risks,” DiNapoli said. “The quick reporting of overflow problems is crucial so the public can avoid exposure. I urge DEC to redouble efforts to make sure all municipal sewer systems are complying with state law on reporting when overflow events occur and to make sure problems are addressed.”
His office said, “Two laws related to wastewater discharges protect New York’s natural resources and the health of its residents: the 2013 Sewage Pollution Right to Know Act, which requires public reporting of sewage discharges; and the State Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (SPDES) program, which controls permitted discharges into public waterways.
“The Right to Know Act requires publicly owned water treatment works and publicly owned sewer facilities to report untreated and partially treated sewage discharges to DEC and the local health department within two hours of discovery and to notify the public and nearby municipalities within four hours of discovery. Exposure to untreated sewage can cause serious illnesses such as dysentery, hepatitis, cholera and cryptosporidiosis, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.”
DiNapoli’s auditors tested a sample of 113 events reported in NY-Alert to determine if publicly owned sewer and water treatment systems were complying with the reporting requirements. For the period from April 2017 to February 2020, auditors found 83 (22%) of the 371 systems were not registered for the NY-Alert notification system and were not reporting overflow events.
Auditors found documentation supporting when overflows occurred varied by facility, but included automated emails, phone calls and text messages from the facilities’ monitoring systems or time-stamped screenshots of the monitoring system dashboard, and logbook entries. Some facilities were unable to provide time-stamped documentation. Due to these limitations, auditors could not verify the timeliness of 37% of the events. Of the other events, 18% were not reported within two hours and 10% were not reported within four hours, as required.
Auditors also identified what they called discrepancies in the information posted on the DEC website of past overflow events. Of the 113 events reviewed, 109 (96%) had inaccurate times for the start of the sewage overflow.
Additionally, auditors found not all facilities submitted written incident reports to the DEC within five days of a “dry weather overflow,” where sewage discharge results from events such as blocked or broken sewer lines or power outages. DiNapoli’s office said DEC has not consistently verified if a report was submitted or followed up with the facilities. Auditors identified 91 dry weather overflows that required a five-day report. For 31% of the events examined, either facilities did not submit a written report or the report could not be located.
The office further stated, under the SPDES program, DEC issues both individual and general discharge permits. SPDES permitholders have certain reporting responsibilities. For example, many are required to submit periodic reports that detail facility discharge data. DEC monitors compliance by analyzing these reports, conducting periodic facility inspections, responding to citizen complaints, and issuing formal and informal enforcements.
DiNapoli’s auditors found SPDES permitholders are not responding as soon as they should to address issues found in inspections, and 11% of the reports that identified excessive discharges did not include a report of noncompliance as required.
In one case, DiNapoli’s office said, DEC conducted an inspection of a facility in July 2018 and reported on five items the facility was required to address by September 2018, including correcting a quarterly discharge monitoring report. However, the facility did not submit the report correction until January 2020, after auditors requested it.
The audit also found DEC wasn’t always taking adequate steps to enforce protections against mercury discharges. Auditors found two of the five water treatment facilities that are required to develop a mercury minimization program had not done so.
DiNapoli recommended DEC:
√ Initiate prompt enforcement action to register publicly owned sewer systems with the department and NY-Alert;
√ Improve reporting required by the act; and
√ Monitor and take timely enforcement action for facilities that don’t submit required reports or plans.
DEC officials generally agreed with the recommendations and indicated actions they would take to implement them. Their full comments are included in the report.