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DEC Falling Short on Sewage Right to Know Law


Adrienne Esposito, CCE, 516-390-7150, [email protected]
Brian Smith, CCE, 716-831-3206, [email protected]
Tina Posterli, Riverkeeper, 516-526-9371, [email protected]

Environmental Groups Calling for Answers at Upcoming Meeting

Albany, NY—With the swimming, fishing and boating season well underway, Citizens Campaign for the Environment (CCE) and Riverkeeper are calling on the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to move swiftly on full implementation of the Sewage Pollution Right to Know law. The law is specifically intended to give the public timely information on when and where sewage overflows occur, so that they can avoid unnecessary exposure. The law passed during the 2012 legislative session and was supposed to be implemented by May 1, 2013, but DEC has failed to meet the deadline.

There has been a significant amount of precipitation this spring, which often causes sewer systems to overflow. From harmful algal blooms to fish kills to beach closures, it is clear that sewage overflows have been occurring across New York State.

“Despite the passage of this critical law, the public still doesn’t know if they are swimming, boating, or fishing in raw sewage,” said Adrienne Esposito, CCE Executive Director. “When it comes to sewage, ignorance isn’t bliss, it’s dangerous. We are calling on the DEC to follow the law and do its job, by fully implementing this critical public health measure. The law was designed for easy implementation; the DEC needs to be aggressive in its implementation.”

While DEC has begun with the first phase of implementation, important information required by the law is not being made available to the public. The law clearly requires incident reporting of combined sewer overflows (CSOs) to the DEC and the public, yet the DEC has indicated that they will not require reporting of CSO discharges and will instead have a standing blanket advisory online. The information on sewer overflows that is being reported is often incomplete and is not reaching the general public in a consistent and timely manner as required by the law.

“The law was passed to protect the public from exposure to all sewage overflows, and the current reporting system is only telling half of the story,” said Paul Gallay, the Hudson Riverkeeper. “Given the rainy spring, there is no doubt that there have been significant combined sewer overflows across the state. We understand that many communities lack the technology to monitor their sewage overflows, but they can make reasonable assumptions based on rain and get the word out to the public to avoid the water near their discharge pipes. When it comes to exposure to sewage, better safe than sorry.”

The second phase of the law, which will require sewer operators to report overflows to the public within four hours, has not been addressed. DEC has indicated that they are developing implementing regulations for this phase, and expect to release it for public comment in the fall.

The DEC is scheduled to give a presentation on the implementation at a meeting of the Water Management Advisory Committee meeting in Albany on Wednesday (agenda available upon request). CCE and Riverkeeper will be attending this critical meeting in order to advocate full implementation. In addition to calling on the DEC to require reporting CSO’s along with SSO’s, the groups will be addressing other critical questions and concerns related to the law:

  • The DEC should be posting sewer overflows to the website on a more timely basis;
  • The information that operators are reporting to DEC is too often lacking
  • critical information, such as the quantity of sewage that overflowed.

  • Notification should be sent to the media, not merely listed on a website.
  • The DEC should release the rules for the second phase of implementation as soon as possible.

Background on Sewage in our Waters
Human exposure to disease-causing pathogens contained in even small amounts of raw sewage can lead to short-term and chronic illnesses, especially for children, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems. Despite the fact that waterborne illnesses are underreported, the number of documented illnesses resulting from swimming is on the rise nationwide. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that between 1.8 and 3.5 million Americans become ill annually from contact with sewage in recreational waters.

Federal funding for wastewater infrastructure has declined dramatically in recent decades. This lack of funding has contributed to a significant decline in the maintenance and upgrades of New York’s wastewater infrastructure. More than 600 wastewater treatment facilities in New York are operating beyond their life expectancy and many others are using outmoded and inadequate technology that results in the discharge of hundreds of millions of gallons of untreated sewage into waters used by New Yorkers for recreation and, in some cases, drinking water.


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