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Against the Current

Finally, signs of action to help Scajaquada Creek

After years of inaction, local and state officials are acting to stem the flow of sewage overflows into the badly polluted Scajaquada Creek.

Following a series of stories by Investigative Post last month that aired on WGRZ and published in Artvoice:

• The Buffalo Sewer Authority, which treats Cheektowaga’s sewage, proposed several options to reduce the flow of untreated sewage into the creek after heavy and moderate rains. The most promising option could cut the volume of overflows by about half, according to town Supervisor Mary Holtz.

• Town of Cheektowaga has retained an engineering firm to develop a new blueprint to eliminate its sewage overflows. The Town Board on Aug. 18 approved a $150,000 contract with Nussbaumer & Clarke to develop the new remedial plan.

• The state Department of Environmental Conservation and state Sen. Tim Kennedy have met with town officials and pledged to help them find funding to cover a portion of the estimated $30 million it will take to upgrade Cheektowaga’s sewage system.

• Officials from the sewer authority, town and Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper met for the first time to consider ways to stem the flow of sewage and untreated stormwater runoff into the portion of the 15 mile creek that flows through Cheektowaga.

“Everyone seems to be moving quicker than expected,” said Holtz, the town supervisor.

Cheektowaga and Buffalo dump more than 500 million gallons of sewage and untreated stormwater runoff into the Scajaquada each year. As a result, the creek has unsafe fecal bacteria levels with sections where sludge is up to five feet deep, which is a breeding ground for avian botulism that is killing birds.

The town reported more overflow events in the course of a year beginning last May than any other municipality in the state with a similar sewer system, according to data from the Sewage Pollution Right to Know law.

Kennedy, who reacted with disgust in July to the creek’s pollution after witnessing dead and dying ducks near Hoyt Lake, urged the DEC to immediately revive discussions with the town after a four-year lapse. The DEC honored his request.

“What has transpired in Scajaquada is simply disgusting and it’s something that needs to be remediated immediately and we’ve begun taking immediate steps to do just that,” Kennedy said.

Consequently, the Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper last month brought town and sewer authority officials together to discuss remedies.

“All parties were very interested in finding both short-term and long-term solutions, which we are collectively evaluating right now,” said Jill Jedlicka, Riverkeeper’s executive director.

Holtz said the biggest development from that meeting is an opportunity to reduce sewer overflows into the creek by about half. The town pays the sewer authority about $3 million a year to treat its sewage at the Bird Island Wastewater Treatment Plant. The city has capacity to take more sewage flow from the town during storm events, at a cost of about $1 million annually.

“That would be huge. “It would be a perfect result,” Holtz said.

The hiring of Nussbaumer & Clarke marks the second time since 2007 the town has attempted to develop a remedial plan. The town paid the same firm $97,000 for a plan the DEC rejected in 2010.

Documents obtained by Investigative Post under the Freedom of Information Law show the DEC rejected the plan because it didn’t feel the town had committed sufficient funds for the work.

According to the DEC documents, the department typically gives localities a decade to eliminate their sewer overflows.

“Sanitary sewer overflows are illegal discharges to the waters of the state,” wrote Gerard Palumbo, DEC’s regional water engineer, in the Aug. 12, 2010, letter. “Therefore it is imperative that they be eliminated in the shortest feasible time.”

The revived negotiations between the DEC, Cheektowaga and the Buffalo Sewer Authority come at a critical time.

In April, the Buffalo Sewer Authority and the Environmental Protection Agency agreed on a $380 million plan over two decades that will significantly reduce, but not eliminate, sewer overflows into various waterways throughout the city. About $91 million will be spent on fixes for the Scajaquada, but the three projects that will have the biggest impact aren’t scheduled to be completed for 13 to 16 years.

For Cheektowaga, Holtz had estimated the town needs at least $30 million to address its sewer overflow problems. That cost estimate could rise, depending on what work is recommended by Nussbaumer & Clarke, she said.

“I have to be very concerned with my taxpayers in Cheektowaga as well as we move forward with this,” Holtz said.

“I’m not saying it won’t cost our taxpayers money, but we have to look at how we will finance it.”

Dan Telvock is a reporter for Investigative Post, a nonprofit investigative reporting center focused on issues of importance to Buffalo and Western New York. Visit daily for investigations, analyses, blog posts, and the latest from Tom Toles.

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