New Law Requires Public Be Told of Sewage Released

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.

Shore Acres in Mamaroneck Exceeds Bacterial Standards, Says NRDC

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The Shore Acres Club in Mamaroneck had one of the highest percentages of bacteria in water samples in a recent 2012 beach water quality report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Of the samples that exceeded New York State standards, typically only 10% of samples monitored exceeded safety standards, but 32% of those at Shore Acres were contaminated. The daily maximum bacterial standard is 104 colonies of  bacteria per 100 ml for marine beaches and 235 colonies per 100 ml for freshwater beaches– a standard that many environmental groups say is  too low to really protect beach goers from waterborne illnesses.  According to the NRDC, the federal standard is currently being revised by the EPA, but the proposed new limits would still “make it acceptable for 1 in 28 swimmers to become ill.” Environmental groups say that preventing waterborne illness would require a stricter, health-based standard and also much stronger methods to control polluted storm water runoff, which is generally recognized as the number one source of beach water contamination. Solutions to the runoff problem, known as “green infrastructure,” could help to diminish the runoff before it causes problems, but the data show such measures are not stopping the polluted runoff as yet.