We know the Susquehanna River isn’t a crystal-clear mountain stream.
So when word came that the Binghamton, N.Y., wastewater system had discharged untreated water into the river during the seemingly neverending rains last week, it wasn’t a complete surprise.
What did come as a surprise was just how much wastewater had flowed into the river — nearly 48 million gallons in a four-day incident beginning Aug. 13 — and that there have been two such incidents this month. The first, on Aug. 7, discharged 6 million gallons.
Known as combined sewer systems, such facilities are designed to overflow in periods of heavy rainfall. That is so streams of untreated sewage and wastewater, known as combined sewer overflows (CSOs), won’t back up into basements and streets. Instead, the flow discharges “directly into receiving waters,” as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency puts it.
In the case of Binghamton, those receiving waters happen to be the Susquehanna, which starts in Upstate New York before it meanders into Pennsylvania for its long march toward the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland.
We know there are going to be CSOs in New York, and here in Pennsylvania. If you visit our local Wyoming Valley Sanitary Authority website, you’ll find a very informative page describing how they work in more detail.
That doesn’t mean CSOs are a good thing. They are merely the lesser of two evils when higher-than-usual rainfall causes problems. Aging or poorly designed combined sewer systems that routinely have CSO issues put the health of rivers and surrounding communities in jeopardy — not to mention the Chesapeake far downstream, in the Susquehanna’s case.
As the U.S. Justice Department has pointed out: “Untreated sewage contains viruses and protozoa as well as other parasites that can lead to adverse health effects.” To mitigate this risk, the federal Clean Water Act prohibits the discharge of sewage and other pollutants into U.S. waters. Discharges must comply with a permit that is designed to meet EPA-approved water quality standards.
The Justice Department has taken legal action against sewer system operators who they say have violated the law. Williamsport, Harrisburg and Scranton, for example, have reached settlements designed to improve their systems and reduce the flows.
What’s up with Binghamton?
Local officials there did not respond to reporter Ed Lewis’ requests for comment in recent days. We did learn by reading Binghamton-area media accounts that the treatment facility was inundated by the Susquehanna River during the September 2011 flood, and has been undergoing hundreds of millions of dollars in renovations since then. According to a recent report in the Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin, 12 million gallons of wastewater are treated at the plant on an average day, so it’s easy to see how a prolonged period of rain could easily overwhelm the system.
We don’t want to heap scorn on people who seem to be trying to do the right thing, at a very high cost to their own taxpayers. And if a statement from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is correct, the swollen river quickly assimilated Binghamton’s wastewater long before it travelled the 36 miles downstream toward Pennsylvania.
That said, we sincerely hope those agencies watching over the system are, in fact, working to ensure that Binghamton’s CSO discharges meet applicable standards and that the improvements will minimize future risk.
— Times Leader