photo: March 2011 filter spill, Larchmont
A new law signed by Governor Cuomo last week requires sewage plants to inform the general public when untreated sewage is released in water bodies, especially swimming beaches and fishing areas.
Under the new law, which goes into effect May 1, 2013, within 4 hours of a sewage discharge, all publicly owned sewage treatment plants and sewer systems will have to notify the public via local news outlets and the website of the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).
Currently, sewage plants notify only certain public officials. (See our previous coverage.)
An important feature of the new law is that sewage plants must notify the public even after routine sewage releases, such as those permitted by the state during rain storms. According to the environmental watchdog group Riverkeeper, their testing data shows “these types of releases appear to be far more common and important for public health.”
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that sewage overflows and storm water discharges from municipal sewer systems create “a variety of harmful pollutants, including disease-causing organisms, metals and nutrients that threaten our communities’ water quality and can contribute to disease outbreaks, beach and shellfish bed closings, flooding, stream scouring, fishing advisories and basement backups of sewage.” An estimated 1.8 to 3.5 million Americans become ill annually from contact with sewage in recreational waters, according to the EPA.
The new law also will require the DEC to release an annual report of discharges of treated or untreated waste from each publicly owned sewage treatment plant and system–including a listing of the amount and duration of the discharges and the responses to each discharge.
A statewide coalition of 25 environmental organizations, including the Riverkeeper and the Waterkeeper Alliance and several of its members, urged passage of the new law.