New York, N.Y. -- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has ordered the Buffalo Sewer Authority in Buffalo, New York to comply with federal Clean Water Act requirements for combined sewer systems to protect people’s health and water quality. Combined sewer systems carry domestic sewage, stormwater runoff and industrial wastewater in the same pipes. During periods of heavy rain, they can overflow and send untreated sewage and toxic materials into local waters. The Buffalo Sewer Authority violated its environmental permit issued by New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, which required it to submit a plan on how the city would reduce the amount of sewage and other pollutants that flow out of 52 combined sewer points into the Niagara River and its tributaries.
“Sewage Pollution in the Niagara River is degrading water quality and having a direct effect on the quality of people’s lives,” said Judith A. Enck, EPA Regional Administrator. “Local fish are inedible and people can’t enjoy recreational water sports or local parks because of sewage odors. Buffalo has made improvements to its combined system in recent years, but much more must be done to protect people’s health and water quality.”
“This Order is an important step to improve the water quality of the Niagara River and to help with the economic revitalization of the City of Buffalo. We look forward to receiving the Authority’s Long-Term Control Plan to reduce CSO discharges. We expect this plan will include green infrastructure projects that will help restore the health of the river,” said DEC Commissioner Joseph Martens.
During periods of heavy rainfall or snowmelt, the volume of wastewater in a combined sewer system can exceed the capacity of the sewer system or wastewater treatment plant. When this happens, combined sewer systems overflow and discharge excess wastewater directly to nearby water bodies. These overflows contain not only stormwater, but also untreated human and industrial waste, toxic materials and debris. It is estimated that Buffalo’s combined system contributes almost four billion gallons of combined sewage overflow to the Niagara River and its tributaries each year.
Under its current state-issued permit, the Buffalo Sewer Authority discharges from its wastewater treatment plant outfalls and from combined sewer overflow points into the Niagara River, Black Rock Canal, Erie Basin, Buffalo River, Scajaquada Creek, Cazenovia Creek and Cornelius Creek. The Buffalo Sewer Authority's 1999 permit required it to develop a Long Term Control Plan, to manage its combined sewage. Long Term Control Plans generally call for system characterization, the development and evaluation of alternatives, and the selection and implementation of controls that reduce water pollution. The plans must consider the costs and effectiveness of reducing the number of overflows and the amounts discharged, as well as water quality improvements. The plans are part of a phased approach for the control of combined sewer overflows that will ultimately meet state water quality standards for the local water bodies.
The Buffalo Sewer Authority was required to submit its plan to reduce sewage discharges by July 1, 2001. The NYSDEC reissued and modified the discharge permit, giving the Buffalo Sewer Authority more time to submit its plan. The authority submitted a plan in July 2004, which was late and inadequate.
The legal order issued by the EPA requires the Buffalo Sewage Authority to submit to DEC and EPA by April 30, 2012 an approvable Long Term Control Plan that proposes sewer system improvements to ensure that combined sewer overflows comply with technology and water quality-based requirements. The Buffalo Sewer Authority could face penalties if it does not comply with the order.
The EPA order also requires the Buffalo Sewer Authority to develop a financial plan that addresses project, capital and costs and to detail a strategy to meet water quality standards. The projected cost of the Buffalo Sewer Authority’s implementation of an approvable Long Term Control Plan could be as much as $500 million dollars over 15 years, depending on the alternatives chosen for implementation.
EPA and DEC are encouraging the Buffalo Sewer Authority to incorporate green infrastructure projects such as increased open space, rain barrels and rain gardens, permeable pavements and sidewalks, green roofs and urban trees into its plan. Using green infrastructure helps reduce the amount of combined sewer overflows by stopping runoff pollution at its source. Many of these methods have the added benefit of improving urban quality of life, lowering heating and cooling costs and improving air quality.
For more information about combined sewer overflows and to read a recent EPA report on the issue, visit