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Environmental Groups and Citizens Partner to Investigate Saw Mill River Sewage Overflow

Saw Mill River sewage overflow

Photo courtesy Bard Porchaska
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Riverkeeper calls for uniform public warning system for both planned and accidental overflows

On Wednesday, October 13th, Andy Hudak, a Yonkers resident and kayaker, was walking along the Saw Mill River when he noticed a heavy flow of foul smelling water rushing into the river from an overflow pipe in the river embankment. The pipe, situated about a quarter mile from where the Saw Mill flows into the Hudson River, is normally dry.

Andy reported the finding to the crew on the Clearwater Sloop, docked in Yonkers that morning. Clearwater Educator Maija Niemisto returned to the site with Andy to investigate. Upon seeing what clearly appeared to be a sewage discharge, Maija called John Lipscomb, Captain of the Riverkeeper patrol boat. John was nearby conducting his monthly water quality testing on the Hudson River. Because the patrol boat is equipped with a water quality sampling system that detects sewage levels in salt and fresh water, the groups were able to pull samples directly from the outfall, as well as the Saw Mill River, and get results within 24 hours.

By the following day, Bob Walters, the Director of the Science Barge in Yonkers, also heard about the suspicious overflow. He checked on it then called John Lipscomb to let him know that it was still flowing. After placing his second call to the DEC, John was told that a sewage main break in Tarrytown caused the overflow. Meanwhile, over the course of two beautiful fall days, area residents were out kayaking, sailing and fishing nearby, including members of the Yonkers Paddling and Rowing Club situated mere yards away from the spot where the sewage-contaminated water was entering the Hudson.

Riverkeeper’s water quality testing results from the outfall indicated extremely high levels of the sewage-indicating bacteria Enterococcus. The EPA federal guidelines for fresh water to be safe for human contact is a single water sample with an Enterococcus count no higher than 61 per 100ml. The water samples taken the previous day hit the upper limit of the testing system at 24,196 per 100ml., four hundred times the acceptable level.

Local and State agencies were aware of the ongoing sewage release and yet the public was not informed. Sewage contamination of our waterways is a known public health threat.

This same month two years ago, Westchester County issued an advisory about a planned discharge of approximately 2 million gallons of sewage to repair a valve at the Yonkers station. The advisory was well broadcast and the public took notice. Riverkeeper sampled the water the day before that release, day of, and day after. The Entercoccus count on the day of the release was 110 per 100ml., above the EPA federal guideline for salt water (104 per 100ml.) but nowhere near as high as the contamination levels at this unannounced, but widely known, accidental release.

Planned or accidental, contact with untreated human waste poses the same threat of exposure to disease including E-coli, Hepatitis, Salmonella and Legionella.

This is why Riverkeeper continues to call on county officials to warn the public every time either a known or accidental release occurs. To let a sewage discharge into a public waterway go unreported is simply unethical. Ignorance is not bliss when the health of the public and river ecology are at risk.

At the time of publishing this article (October 19th), the sewage is still flowing into the Saw Mill River. The leak has been estimated at approximately 4.4 million gallons.

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