In recent months, combined sewage overflow (CSO) and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) pollution in the Hudson River have seemed fairly regular features of the news cycle, with some reported waste pollution estimated in millions of gallons–not only in the Capital Region, but also New York City and Niagara Falls. A recent EPA update on their seven-year project of digging out the PCB pollutants from the riverbed seemed to have an uncertain future, and it made local attendees a bit uneasy. With an increase of public scrutiny on the river’s pollution, the local community is on the lookout for a solution to the ongoing threat these contaminants present to the Hudson’s ecosystem and to the public health of nearby inhabitants.
According to the DEC, the Sewage Right to Know Law, a section of the state Codes, Rules and Regulations (NYCRR part 750 1.12) enacted in 2013, “requires that discharges of untreated and partially treated sewage discharges are reported by publicly owned treatment works (POTWs) and publicly owned sewer systems (POSSs) within two hours of discovery to DEC and within four hours of discovery to the public and adjoining municipalities.” There are three wastewater treatment plants within the Capital Region.
In these systems, city sewage, industrial wastewater and stormwater runoff to publicly owned treatment works facilities, but during heavy periods of rain the sewage tends to overflow, pervading nearby bodies of water. In some cases, that can mean overflows that send hundreds of gallons of waste into the river each minute–and it’s perfectly legal.
Specifically, the department site says, the waste from CSOs are “allowable discharges under the Clean Water Act (CWA) and are regulated as permitted discharge points…under a community’s State Pollution Discharge Elimination System (SPDES) permit.”
According to the DEC CSO overflow map, the city of Troy has 47 overflow sites under SPDES permits that access the Hudson River. Albany is home to 11, Rensselaer has eight, the village of Green Island has three and Cohoes has one. Each site’s overflow is detected by the DEC’s “model” method, in which a predictive calculation is made based on quantitative rainfall information.
NY-Alert makes each reported overflow available to the public–on mobile devices and computers. After signing up online, a user can have alerts sent to their phone and/or email each time a sewage overflow occurs in the counties they have selected in their profile. The DEC, as well as the Albany Pool Communities of the Capital District Regional Planning Commission, also have up-to-date CSO site maps online.
Since 2007, the Albany Pool Communities (Albany Water Board, the cities of Troy, Cohoes, Rensselaer, Watervliet and the village of Green Island) have been working together to develop a long-term control plan to reduce the overflow of raw sewage into the Hudson River from the cities’ combined sewage systems. Through their notification system, each CSO site can be monitored for its current overflow probability, with updates every 15 minutes.
“It’s a great compliment to the NY-Alert system,” Martin Daley, director of Water Quality Programs at the CDRPC, said of the map. “When the [Sewage Right to Know Law] became final, the DEC required us to set up a website alerting the public and we predated that requirement. It’s a great communication tool.”
“If we’re talking heavy rainfall, it’s fairly certain there will be an overflow,” Daley said, explaining that the levels of probability ranges from low (“a quarter inch of rainfall”), moderate (“steady mist”) and high (“a heavy storm”).
During a recent period of heavy rainfall on July 28, all but a dozen of Troy’s permitted CSO sites reported high overflow probability. Eleven reported as moderate. Only one was low.
For community members living near the CSO sites, this is particularly troubling. In outfalls like the Ingalls Avenue Boat Launch in North Troy, Media Alliance executive director Steve Pierce told The Alt, local kids go swimming to cool off in the summer and low-income community members fish to put food on the table. Some of these residents have limited access to the internet and are therefore unable to check up on CSO overflow notifications accessible via the Albany Pool and DEC sites.
Signage for CSOs
According to Daley, the law’s overarching policy on CSOs says, “Each outfall is required to have a sign with a phone number to call and the DEC website.”
When asked about Albany’s effort to post physical public notices of pollution in the Hudson River, Albany Water Commissioner Joe Coffey was adamant about the city’s compliance with the Sewage Right to Know Law.
In addition to sending notices via mail, the city posts small and specific signs at public outfalls to the river to notify visitors that there is a nearby permitted CSO site.
“If you ride along the bike path, you can see small signs anywhere that has an outfall to the river,” Coffey explained. “They have to be legible and visible from the water and the land. We inspect them in the fall–a lot of them have been around for a while.”
The city of Troy’s Department of Public Utilities could not be reached in time for publication.
Signage for PCBs
Another major threat to public health in the Hudson is polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. According to Riverkeeper, their discharges are sourced from two General Electric (GE) plants about 50 miles north of Albany in Fort Edward and Hudson Falls.
The Department of Health’s Hudson River Fish Advisory site lists PCB as one of the Hudson River’s primary contaminants in fish, crab and lobster — next to mercury. Other trace contaminants include cadmium, chlordane, DDT, dieldrin, dioxin and mirex–chemicals that are often used as insecticides.
The website’s regional advisory table currently reads “DON’T EAT” for all fish caught within in the area from the Hudson Falls Dam at Bakers Falls to Federal Dam of Lock One in Troy.
“These chemicals build up in your body over time,” the site reads. “Health problems that may result from these contaminants range from small changes in health that are hard to detect to birth defects and cancer.”
Some state government groups work with community partners to distribute signage that warns visitors against eating their catch, such as the state DOH Hudson River Fish Advisory Outreach Project.
One of the main objectives, a project update packet reads, is “to promote awareness of the advisories by posting signs at major fishing access sites on the river.”
According to DOH spokesperson Erin Silk, signs are posted by property owners only, whether the parcel is publicly or privately owned.
“The Department of Health’s role is to respond to local requests by providing technical assistance, including graphics and language, to ensure that content is consistent with our advisory messages,” Silk told The Alt in an email. “Our partners do not post signs unless they are also the riverfront property owners.”
“Our partners do alert us if they know a fish advisory sign is supposed to be posted and is no longer at the designated location, or they may recommend where a sign should be posted,” Silk added. “The Department will reach out to property owners to replace or ask if they will post a sign.”
For more information concerning these pollutants or to see if there is a CSO site near you, visit albanypool.org or contact the DEC.