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Crapped Out

When it comes to the pollution in Scajaquada Creek, there’s plenty of blame to go around

Way back in 1993 the state Department of Environmental Conversation told the City of Buffalo to dredge Scajaquada Creek to remove decaying human excrement and other sludge that was up to five feet deep in some places.

The city refused—and the DEC did nothing.

In 2008 the DEC used an enforcement order to force the Town of Cheektowaga to submit a plan to reduce sewer overflows into the creek. The DEC rejected that plan in 2010—and has done nothing since then to force the issue.

In the interim, Cheektowaga has dumped more than one billion gallons of raw sewage and untreated runoff into the creek. That sewage, coupled with the 270 million gallons of dirty water dumped into the creek every year by the Buffalo Sewer Authority, is the primary reason why the Scajaquada is little more than an open sewer.

The water is unfit for recreational use due to, among other things, fecal bacteria counts 20 times above safe levels and the presence of avian botulism that kills birds on a regular basis.

My colleague Dan Telvock detailed the problem last week, prompting the obvious question of “Who’s responsible for this outrage?”

Start with Cheektowaga because of the more than 300 million gallons of sewage and runoff it deposits into the creek every year. Officials there have taken only modest steps to address the problem and Supervisor Mary Holtz is dodging questions. No surprise, given she did the same thing when Dan tried to interview her earlier in the year about the town’s anemic recycling program. I guess the environment isn’t her thing. Or accountability.

Buffalo also needs to be held accountable. The Environmental Protection Agency ordered the city to develop a remedial plan way back in 1999 and it took 15 years to develop an acceptable plan, which was announced this April.

That’s a long time and a lot of dirty water later. With more to come, unfortunately.

The agreement gives the Buffalo Sewer Authority until 2030 to complete all of the Scajaquada related work and, even then, allows for the dumping of 52 million gallons of untreated sewage and stormwater runoff into the creek each year.

Which means the creek will only kind of get cleaned up and only eventually. Which also means that the EPA, too, is culpable.

Then there is the DEC, which is charged with dealing with entities the size of Cheektowaga and other local suburbs. It’s track record on the Scajaquada is, unfortunately, par for the course, as Telvock’s reporting over the past two years has documented.

The department has been reluctant to enforce regulations that discourage the idling of diesel trucks at the Peace Bridge and disingenuous in reporting the impact of pollution in the adjacent neighborhood. And it’s largely sat on its hands as a construction and demolition contractor in the Seneca-Babcock section of the city coated the neighborhood in concrete dust.

Of course, Exhibit A is how the DEC allowed Tonawanda Coke to poison the air, and its neighbors, for years until the EPA finally stepped in in 2009.

The DEC’s lack of effectiveness is a problem statewide.

“Environmental enforcement is on the decline,” declared Environmental Advocates of New York in a 2013 report entitled, “Turning a Blind Eye to Illegal Pollution.”

The department has been decimated by cuts since the Great Recession, down from about 3,775 employees under Gov. Eliot Spitzer to 2,980 last budget year, said Peter Iwanowicz, executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York. The Divisions of Air and Water Quality Management alone have lost 235 positions—more than a quarter of its staff.

The cuts have increased workloads and robbed the DEC of expertise.

“They just don’t have the resources. They can’t keep up,” Iwanowicz said.

Sen. Mark Grisanti, chairman of the Senate’s Environmental Conservation Committee, told Investigative Post that it might be time to re-evaluate staffing at the DEC.

“They were slashed and cut to the core,” he said.

The department otherwise operates differently under Cuomo. There’s greater reliance on self-reporting, fewer state inspections, fewer enforcement actions.

For example, water-quality related inspections—be they of treatment facilities or industries that discharge chemicals—were cut by 74 percent between 2009 and 2012, Iwanowicz said.

Add to this the DEC’s hostility under Cuomo to the notion of the public’s right to know.

The department attempts to avoid accountability by hiding behind press releases and declining interviews with reporters. They’re doing it again with Scajaquada Creek, refusing interview requests with Telvock as though the story is going to somehow blow over.

It’s indicative of the lack of transparency and the bunker mentality that permeates the Cuomo administration at all levels. As a result, the DEC is as murky as the waters of Scajaquada Creek.

It’s all well and good that state Senators Grisanti and Tim Kennedy are demanding the DEC get tough on Scajaquada Creek.

“It’s time for the Department of Environmental Conservation to step up and to get much more aggressive,” Kennedy said.

But Iwanowicz cautioned that substantive action is unlikely as long as the DEC remains short staffed and driven by Cuomo’s laissez faire policies.

“The Governor does not seem to have a deep appreciation for the state’s environmental needs and how to ensure the air is clean enough to breathe and water is safe to drink and recreate in.”

Jim Heaney is editor and executive director of Investigative Post, a nonprofit investigative reporting center focused on issues of importance to Buffalo and Western New York. Visit investigativepost.org daily for investigations, analyses, blog posts, and the latest from Tom Toles.

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