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Our Sewers Runneth Over

Cheektowaga, Buffalo taking steps to address pollution problems

Engineers have told Cheektowaga it’s going to cost up to $53 million to update the town’s aging sewer system, which spews hundreds of million of gallons of sewage mixed with stormwater into local waterways every year.

A number of options are under consideration, including lining leaky sewer lines and building underground storage tanks to hold sewage until it can be treated. The work could take up to a decade to complete and might require financing that would be subject to a referendum.

The town is also considering steps that would end illegal connections of downspouts, basement drains and sump pumps to the sewer system. The connections can swamp sewer lines during heaving rains.

Meanwhile, the Buffalo Sewer Authority, which treats the town’s sewage, is analyzing options to treat more wastewater at an annual estimated cost of $1 million. The plan could immediately reduce the number of overflows by up to half, town officials said.

Regardless of how the town proceeds, the options under consideration are likely to significantly reduce the amount of sewage that flows into Scajaquada and Cayuga creeks. The town’s engineer said he can’t estimate the reductions without additional data, however.

Cheektowaga has a major problem to fix. The town reported to environmental regulators more sewage overflows than any of the 440 similar sewer systems in the state. That’s more than 500 overflows over the past 18 months, with a majority reaching Scajaquada Creek.

These systems overflow for various reasons, including heavy rain and snow melt, cracked sewer pipes that allow stormwater to infiltrate, and illegal roof downspout and sump pump connections.

The efforts by town and city officials follow a series of stories on the badly polluted Scajaquada Creek by Investigative Post that aired on WGRZ and published in Artvoice this summer.

Cheektowaga and Buffalo each year dump more than a half-billion gallons of raw sewage mixed with dirty stormwater into Scajaquada Creek. As a result, the creek has unsafe levels of fecal bacteria with sections containing up to five-feet of sludge, which DEC officials said had become a breeding ground for avian botulism that is killing birds.

Cheektowaga Councilmember Tim Meyers said the town’s sewage system must be upgraded.

“Look at the environment, this is for the future of our kids, their kids,” he said. “It’s just the right thing to do.”

Town improvements

The town hired the engineering firm Nussbaumer & Clarke in September to develop a remedial plan to improve upon a proposal rejected four years ago by the state Department of Environmental of Conservation. Town officials have not publicly released the new plan, but they outlined some of the key provisions to Investigative Post.

The $53 million price tag is a worst-case scenario, said Cheektowaga Town Supervisor Mary Holtz. Some of the spending may be covered by a 30-year bond that would require the approval of voters.

“This is a big project to put on our residents, which will have to be spread over a long period of time with our bonding,” she said.

To help with the financial burden, town officials have approached Sen. Tim Kennedy to advocate for about $25 million in state funding.

“We have committed to them that we will be pushing for assistance from the state for this project,” said Molly Hirshbeck, Kennedy’s spokeswoman.

In addition, both Holtz and Meyers said they’d like the town to hire more part-time code enforcers this spring to inspect homes for illegal connections. They are also considering legislation that would require sump pumps and inspections for illegal connections when houses and other buildings are sold.

Pat Bowen, the town’s engineer, said cooperation from residents and businesses is critical.

“An 8-inch sanitary sewer line can carry the wastewater flows of approximately 200 homes, but eight sump pumps operating at full capacity, or six homes with downspouts connected to the sanitary sewers, will overload this same 8-inch line,” he said.

The actions being contemplated by Cheektowaga officials will take time to implement. But an arrangement under discussion with the Buffalo Sewer Authority could have an immediate impact.

City plan for improvements

The authority has its own sewer problems to fix. But unlike Cheektowaga, it has a blueprint approved by state and federal regulators.

The $380 million plan spans two decades and will significantly reduce the amount of raw sewage dumped into city waterways. About $91 million will go toward reducing overflows into the Scajaquada, but the projects with the biggest impact aren’t scheduled to be completed for 13 to 16 years.

The authority can help Cheektowaga with its problems much sooner.

Meyers said the authority treats up to 45 million gallons a day of the town’s sewage for about $3 million a year. Holtz and Meyers said they’ve discussed increasing that amount to 60 million gallons a day, which could cost the town an additional $1 million a year.

David Comerford, the sewer authority’s general manager, said he is preparing what he considers a compelling pitch to make to the DEC by the end of the year that involves holding and treating that additional sewage. Doing so could reduce 30 to 50 percent of the overflows in Cheektowaga, town officials said.

Comerford said before he approaches the state, he wants to ensure that taking more waste water from the town won’t add to the city’s overflow problems.

“From a capacity standpoint and engineering standpoint I think we can take those flows,” he said.

“I think it is going to be positive for everybody, but [Cheektowaga officials] have to look at the cost and program it in. I’d like to address this quickly.”

Holtz, however, isn’t sure the proposal with the sewer authority would be more cost effective than the town constructing its own storage for sewer overflows at an estimated cost of $16 million.

“We will have to weigh the option of paying them or doing it ourselves,” Holtz said.

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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