Ossining, NY – August 9, 2012 – Riverkeeper commends Gov. Andrew Cuomo for signing the Sewage Pollution Right to Know Act, passed in June with bipartisan support from the New York State Legislature (A.10585A Sweeney / S.6268D Grisanti).
This important law will not only give the public timely information that will help them avoid contact with water after raw or partially treated sewage has been discharged, but it will increase public support for the critical infrastructure fixes necessary to achieve the Clean Water Act goal of making water safe for swimming, fishing and drinking.
Paul Gallay, President and Hudson Riverkeeper, said: “The support for this bill from the Governor, the DEC, the Legislature and the public wastewater treatment plant operators, shows how much we can accomplish for the environment and public health when we come together.”
Sewage overflows occur throughout New York. They contaminate beaches, bays, rivers, lakes, and streams; and can flood streets and back up into homes or other buildings. Members of the public can often be seen swimming, boating and fishing in areas that have recently been contaminated with sewage.
The sewage release that began Wednesday in Tarrytown provides an example of the importance of a statewide law. Westchester County, which has a local law requiring notification after accidents cause sewage spills, notified the public about the release of raw sewage to the Hudson River, and media widely reported it Thursday morning. Riverkeeper Patrol Boat Capt. John Lipscomb talked with people Thursday who were avoiding the water in that area as a precaution.
Importantly, the new state law will also require notification after routine sewage releases, such as those permitted by the state during rain storms. According to Riverkeeper’s testing data, these types of releases appear to be far more common and important for public health.
A statewide coalition of 25 environmental organizations, including the Waterkeeper Alliance and several of its members, supported the effort to pass the Sewage Right to Know Act.
Similar public notification laws already exist in more than a dozen other states, including Connecticut, which passed a notification law earlier this year. New York’s Sewage Right to Know law will require public notification within four hours of a sewage discharge. Notification will happen via local news outlets and the website of the NY Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). In addition, the DEC will produce a statewide Sewage Discharge Report each year that will report annual discharges and remedial responses taken.
The public has demonstrated overwhelming support for passage of this important legislation. Nearly 20,000 letters have been sent to elected officials and over 43,000 signatures have been collected in support of the public’s right to know when sewage overflows contaminate New York’s waterways and communities.
Background on Sewage in our Waters
New York is the only state with ocean, estuarine and Great Lakes coastlines. Our beautiful waters are a major contributor to our local economies.
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. In addition, outdated combined sewer systems overflow raw sewage and stormwater into local waterways when it rains, adding additional billions of gallons of untreated sewage into our precious waterways each year.
The public can access Riverkeeper’s water quality testing program, and the results of more than 2,000 samples taken monthly from 74 locations on the Hudson River and its tributaries since 2006, at riverkeeper.org/water-quality/hudson.