Westchester County: Stop the Sewage Overflows that Pollute the Sound

For over a decade, state, county, and municipal officials have failed to effectively address sewage overflows and leaking sewer pipes in Westchester County. Yesterday, Save the Sound took strong action. After months of meetings with municipalities and the County, we filed a legal notice that we, and other residents of Westchester who care about the Sound, are not going to take it anymore.

First, a bit of background. Rainwater flows into cracked and broken sewer pipes that lead to County trunk lines, forcing raw sewage out, which gets into groundwater and pollutes the Sound. This huge additional volume of collected rainwater causes illegal high flows that overwhelm the County’s sewage treatment infrastructure. These high flows regularly cause discharges of raw or partially-treated sewage that contaminate Long Island Sound with bacteria and excess nitrogen. The result is a serious health risk to residents and wildlife that closes beaches and shellfish beds. Moreover, this nitrogen-laden sewage contributes to large low-oxygen dead zones, including a major one right off Westchester’s shores, where aquatic life cannot survive. The county and the municipalities have known since at least 2003 that much more needed to be done to fix these problems but the actions taken so far have been woefully inadequate.

This map depicts the extent of bacterial impairments in and around Westchester coastal waters and rivers.
This map depicts the extent of bacterial impairments in and around Westchester coastal waters and rivers.

Anyone who has been following Save the Sound’s water quality monitoring and advocacy work knows about these problems because we have documented the high bacteria levels in local waters and have been discussing solutions in public meetings, in the press, and online. New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the Environmental Protection Agency know about the problems because they maintain the growing list of bacteria-impaired waterways that includes all of our harbors and many of our rivers. The western Sound and waters surrounding Westchester County got a D+ in an ecological report card released just a few days ago. A grade like that cries out for remedial action!

Yesterday Save the Sound took another decisive step to speed up needed infrastructure repairs and stop the flow of sewage into the Sound: we issued a Notice of Intent to Sue (NOIS) to Westchester County, putting the County on notice that we won’t stand for another decade of delays and partial solutions. You can read the executive summary here.

Save the Sound is calling on Westchester County to work with us, the towns, EPA, and New York State DEC to:

  • Fix leaking pipes that run from private homes and businesses into the public sewer system;
  • Fix leaking town and county pipes;
  • Establish enforceable timelines for repairs; and
  • Establish a sufficient funding source to complete the necessary work in the required timeline.

Specifically, the Notice of Intent to Sue alleges that the County violates the Clean Water Act by:

  • Discharging partially treated sewage from the Flint Ave and Cherry Ave SSO control facility in the New Rochelle Sewer District in violation of the relevant Clean Water Permit;
  • Failing to enforce the County Sewer Act to limit illegal levels of flow from municipalities in the New Rochelle, Mamaroneck, Blind Brook, and Port Chester Sanitary Sewer Districts; and
  • Failing to implement state-mandated flow reduction requirements with municipalities in the New Rochelle, Mamaroneck, Blind Brook, and Port Chester Sanitary Sewer Districts that are sufficient to end illegal sewage discharges.

Westchester County and all of its municipalities have a great deal to do in order to clean up their act and protect Long Island Sound.

Action taken by the local municipalities so far varies, with some communities actively working to reduce excess sewage flows while others are waiting for County leadership and pressure.

A few outstanding examples of progress at the municipal level include Port Chester and the Town of Mamaroneck, both of which  have instituted Sewer Rents that are generating capital for the repairs and maintenance of local sewer lines. The Village of Mamaroneck is working closely with Save the Sound on a private sewer lateral ordinance and financing program that will address the problem of cracked and leaking lines on private property. Eventually all municipalities in the region will need 1) a source of capital for repairs, 2) a maintenance schedule for local lines, and 3) a means for addressing the problem of decayed lines on private property.

Save the Sound is committed to continuing our work with local leaders and the public to stanch the flow of raw bacterial and nitrogen-filled sewage into the Sound. If you agree, can you sign our citizen nitrogen petition asking the EPA and the governors of New York and Connecticut to take additional steps to address nitrogen pollution this year? The Sound deserves better, and the families of Westchester deserve a safe Sound for swimming, clamming and boating.

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