Investigation still in early stage; situation draws ire of officials
By Terry Duffy
On Thursday, the Niagara Falls Water Board attempted to address mounting outrage over the unexpected July 29 discharge of unsightly black, foul-smelling wastewater into the lower Niagara River at the base of Niagara Falls.
"Today, the board staff would like to provide you with some further details on the incident and describe the steps we are taking in carrying out our internal inquiry into all aspects of this matter," Niagara Falls Water Board Chairman Dan O'Callaghan said to press gathered outside the water treatment plant offices on Buffalo Avenue. "We share the interest and determination to have a complete understanding of what happened Saturday, July 29 ... and to do everything possible to continue to protect public health needs."
"Now, it has to be said that there are many areas that we are not able to determine due to various factors," he added. "We are in the earliest stage of the inquiry.
O'Callaghan indicated the cause of the leakage might have been a mechanical malfunction or human error.
"We have not yet drawn conclusions to every aspect under consideration," he said. "Similarly, there are matters that will be taken up with the regulatory bodies, upon which it is too early to comment."
O'Callaghan explained, "We have spent a good amount of time reviewing the facts and circumstances surrounding the release and discussing the matter with DEC. And I wanted to share the following information with you.
"The first thing you should know is that the discharge occurred during an upgrade in an important part of our wastewater treatment plant. And that will make our plant operate more efficiently and resulted in cleaner water into the Niagara River."
O'Callaghan continued, "As part of this upgrade, it was necessary to empty the sediment tank that contained backwash water, that is created when the carbon filters which clean the wastewater are flushed, like all carbon filtration systems. The carbon filters at the Niagara Falls wastewater building ... are need(ed) to flush periodically to keep the system properly operating. That's how the systems work properly, and retained and maintained. That's how they were designed to operate.
"Because of the carbon filters, the backwash is black. In this case, the backwash water was treated to remove solids and contain mostly carbon finds, in some suspended solids that the treatment process did not remove. This is always normal.
"Typically about once a year, the Niagara Falls Water Board takes (a) certain quality of water, which it is allowed to do, and sends it through a disinfectant process before ... being combined with other treated water when it is released into the lower Niagara River in accordance with the DEC permits. The Niagara Falls Water Board has been under the DEC permits since 1970.
"Saturday, however, it was clear to us that, as a result of possible human error, possible mechanical malfunction, a large quantity of water from the sediment tank was released into the Niagara River. And that was supposed to happen (as part of the tank's planned upgrade).
"This resulted in the dark water in the Niagara River. We have been in discussions with the DEC, about the details of what occurred, and we are continuing these discussions for the coming days.
"We are confident that we have identified the cause of this unfortunate incident and know what needs to be done to make it not happen again. It is our priority for clean water, properly treated waste system, but we cannot take any questions ... at the present time during the investigation.
"I would be committed to the future public updates as they develop. We're not taking questions because we're under investigation."
Multiple news sources - local, national and international - reported on the sudden release of wastewater that occurred on a sunny Saturday afternoon at a discharge outlet located adjacent to the Maid of the Mist dock near the American Falls. The immediate area was crowded that day with thousands of tourists who were taken by surprise by the volume, appearance and smell of the discharge.
While the discharge dissipated overnight, video footage, as well as photos of the incident, soon went viral, and news outlets have since covered the incident in detail, creating what many called a public relations nightmare for the Niagara Falls tourism industry.
Niagara County Legislature Majority Leader Randy R. Bradt, R-North Tonawanda, said, "The local tourism promotion agency released figures two years ago that said Niagara County tourism was an $827 million-a-year industry. 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."
The incident also caught government officials off guard. It resulted in calls for the sanctioning of the Niagara Falls Water Board and demands for members' removal.
Members of the Niagara County Legislature had announced their board would meet in special session next week to take up four resolutions that urge the Water Board leadership board to resign. They're also pondering a criminal investigation.
"The board's conduct here is beyond defense, and they have lost our confidence," Bradt said. "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 cited news reports that Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation were casting doubt on Water Board claims that proper procedures were followed. He said this information 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.
Bradt and Legislators Rebecca Wydysh (R-Lewiston) Kathryn Lance (R-Wheatfield) and Will Collins (R-Lockport) drafted resolutions Wednesday after Cuomo called for a DEC investigation of the Water Board's actions.
One of those resolutions directly calls on 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 the legislature has the votes to pass all four resolutions.
Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster issued a statement Thursday that said, "Now is not the time to play politics. Saturday's incident is a serious matter and one that is actively being investigated by Niagara Falls Police and the Department of Environmental Conservation. Rather than politicize the issue, I would encourage my colleagues in government to allow the investigation to run its full course before assigning blame."
Prior to the press conference Thursday, Porter and Water Board operations staff met to discuss the operational and human factors that resulted in the discharge.
In a statement to the media, they wrote, "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."
O'Callaghan reiterated that in his remarks to the press.
"Once again, on behalf of the Water Board, I would like to apologize for not holding a press conference before, but we have decided that the Water Board as our priority should be to investigate and identify the cause of the discharge of water in the lower Niagara River on Saturday, and to share the preliminary results of our investigation as we proceed to fix the problem," he said.
On Thursday, Congressman Brian Higgins said he, too, would call for a full investigation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as he questioned whether the incident 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."