On Thursday, August 9, Governor Cuomo signed the Sewage Pollution Right-to-Know Act into law, ensuring that the public has access to information about sewage overflows so the public can avoid recreating in contaminated water. At the exact moment this bill was being signed in Albany, residents of Rockland and Westchester were watching 3.4 million gallons of raw sewage spill into the Hudson River. Many residents were watching extremely closely, as an Iron Man competition was planned for that Saturday, with the swimming portion taking place in the Hudson River near where sewage discharges were occurring. Luckily, the sewage line break that caused the problem was fixed by Friday and the water was cleared for swimming in time for Saturday’s race, avoiding a potentially dangerous and, frankly, disgusting situation. Moreover, Westchester County and local municipalities disseminated information quickly and kept the media and public updated. Residents who would be effected by the spill were able to avoid contact with contaminated water, which is a right that all New Yorkers should be, and now
will be, afforded.
The response to this spill is encouraging, as it shows a marked improvement from last summer, when people could be seen recreating in the Hudson River as sewage overflows were occurring. Last June, a fire at a West Harlem plant caused 260 millions of gallons of sewage to be dumped into the Hudson River over the course of three days. During the spill, which also began on a Wednesday and ended on a Friday during peak beach season, beaches were not immediately closed and people were not regularly updated on potential contamination. Area residents were swimming and boating in the Hudson and East Rivers as the raw sewage was spilling and kayakers were paddling directly through the contaminated area, completely unaware of the health hazard. The stories of people recreating in sewage spills like the one in Harlem is what motivated CCE, along with other activist groups and legislators, to get the Right-to-Know Act passed.
While the response to this last Hudson spill showed improvement and took public notification seriously, this response is not consistent with what is happening throughout the state. Information on when and where sewage spills occur is still not publicly available, which is why legislation ensuring public notification is necessary. When the Right-to-Know Law goes into effect next summer, it will guarantee that every public sewage treatment plant and municipality is disseminating accurate, timely information if an overflow occurs. The law will also provide New Yorkers with a centralized location on the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation website where people can find out if a sewage overflow occurred in their area.
And the truth is that it is fairly likely a sewage overflow will occur in your area. Throughout the state, sewage infrastructure is old and it is failing. It will cost about $
36 billion to do all the sewage system upgrades that are needed in New York. In some places the problem is being fixed piecemeal, in some places the problem is not being fixed at all. The next step is to use the information gathered from this law to convince Congress to increase investments in sewage infrastructure and update the systems that are failing . But in the meantime, New Yorkers will at least be able to avoid swimming in sewage.