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Boat Brigade concern prompts Wallkill River treatment plant inquiry

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This is a guest post by Archie Morris of the Wallkill River Watershed Alliance.

A sewage treatment plant in the Town of Montgomery is under scrutiny after reports of a caustic-smelling discharge by the Wallkill River Watershed Alliance.

On May 28, paddlers taking part in one of the Alliance’s routine “Boat Brigades” identified an outfall with a caustic smell in the Town of Montgomery. The sign beside the pipe, required by state law as part of public notification to mark discharges permitted under the Clean Water Act, was illegible at any distance greater than 24 inches making it impossible to read from either the river or the highway nearby. With help from Riverkeeper, the Alliance reported their concerns.

The discharge from the sewage treatment plant had a caustic odor. (Photo by Archie Morris / Wallkill River Watershed Alliance)

The Boat Brigades, organized by Brenda Cemelli, Arthur Cemelli, with help from Archie Morris in Orange County, and support from New Paltz Kayaking Tours, are a signature initiative of the Wallkill River Watershed Alliance. Citizens patrol the river in kayaks and canoes primarily with the goal of enjoying the scenic Wallkill river but also identifying and reporting any problems they may observe. The patrols are in many ways modeled on Capt. John Lipscomb’s Hudson River patrols for Riverkeeper. Since launching in 2015, the Boat Brigades have been responsible for several positive impacts. These include mapping many outfalls to the river, causing the correction of improper stormwater management at a construction site, and identifying dozens of tires the Alliance is organizing an event to clean up August 20. To join upcoming boat brigades planned this summer, see the schedule.

The Department of Environmental Conservation responded promptly to the Alliance’s May 28 report of the suspicious discharge and were very forthcoming in follow up communications with additional information regarding actions taken to investigate the reported concerns.

The plant in question is designed to treat only human sewage, so the DEC ordered both additional sampling at the plant and outfall. Further, an investigation of industrial facilities in the area is being conducted to determine if any wastes other than sewage are reaching the treatment plant, or the river. Though most people don’t realize it, municipal wastewater plants that are designed to treat sewage may also receive industrial wastes, and these plants are required under the Clean Water Act to require industrial users of public sewers to test and pre-treat wastes that could pass through plants untreated, or upset the sewage treatment process.

Through a routine review of discharge monitoring reports that the DEC says is standard when investigating a complaint such as this, the DEC also identified that several recent water quality violations were associated with rain. As a result, the DEC ordered an “I&I” investigation – an evaluation of “inflow and infiltration” of stormwater into sewer pipes. This is a common problem in public sewers. Sewers become overwhelmed with rainwater resulting in overflows, bypasses, or incomplete treatment when rainwater fills pipes. Also this process is exacerbated when rising groundwater infiltrates aging pipes, sump pumps, and roof gutters that homeowners connect inappropriately to sanitary sewers or by cross-connections between stormwater and sewer pipes.

SPDES permit holders are required under New York State law to display certain information on signs. This sign was illegible. (Photo by Archie Morris / Wallkill River Watershed Alliance)

Soon, the sign marking the outfall — identifying its owner, permit number, contact information and other basic information – will be replaced.

The public can research reported violations and find information about enforcement actions taken at treatment plants like this, using the EPA’s ECHO database.

We can only consider these actions interim results since any potential water quality problems have not been corrected. But the Alliance’s Boat Brigades have prompted important investigations and with Riverkeeper’s help, we’ll continue to follow up.

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