Maybe accepting hydrofracking wastewater isn't such a bad idea.
Not when compared with what's already being dumped into the lower Niagara River through the city's wastewater treatment plant.
A comment made by Niagara Falls Water Board Chairman Mike McNally at a recent meeting stunned his audience and has Corporation Council Craig Johnson FOIL-ing.
McNally said that the Niagara Falls wastewater treatment plant is already taking in chemical-laden waste that is more dangerous than the toxic wastewater produced by hydrofracking.
It was a bombshell for those at the meeting, which was called by Board Member Renae Kimble to establish communication between the Water Board and the City Council.
The treatment plant is taking in toxic waste from New Jersey and Ohio, among other places, and getting paid to do it.
"Chairman (Sam) Fruscione, Councilman (Glenn) Choolokian, and I will be meeting very soon to determine the scope of the FOIL request that will be submitted," Johnson said. The plan is to FOIL to find out how much and what is being accepted here and then released into the lower Niagara River.
FOIL stands for the New York State Freedom of Information Law, under which municipalities and government agencies are required to disclose most government-related documents.
McNally did not return repeated requests seeking comment or explanation, but the off-the-cuff remark was enough to put up a red flag to Johnson, Fruscione and Choolokian, who were all at the meeting with Kimble and McNally.
It's not being suggested that anything illegal is going on, but trucking in toxic waste from out of state while bickering about in-state fracking water seems a bit odd.
Water Board Executive Director Paul Drof said the plant is safely handling chemical waste from multiple private companies.
Asked about McNally's comment, Drof said, "I can't comment."
When asked his opinion of the comment, Drof said, "My opinion doesn't matter. It's whatever the board would like me to do. I work for the board ... at the board's direction."
McNally said the City Council "overstepped their boundaries" by passing an anti-hydrofracking ordinance last month.
That's why McNally and Vice Chairman Nicholas Marchelos voted to sue the city over the issue. They were shot down by a 3-2 vote, with Board Members Renae Kimble, Thomas Vitello and Ted Janese voting against filing the lawsuit.
Drof was willing to explain the basics of accepting outside waste at their Niagara Falls treatment facility.
"It's not a new venture. We receive hauled waste and we've been doing so for a long period of time, since before the authority was formed when we were still part of the city."
Drof said the plant receives the waste as a means to offset the cost of water to the public.
"To date, as long as the program has been running, it's been a little over $3 million," he said.
"Basically, it's the treatment of waste from outside of our district, people who need to have it treated properly. If that waste is suitable, and it's approved for disposal here by the New York State (Department of Environmental Conservation), and it meets our analysis (standards), and we can verify that it is treated and handled properly, then we're allowed to take it."
Drof said the process is monitored as prescribed by law.
"We do take random samples. We do make sure that the material they're giving to us is what it says. We can go back to the source and identify where it came from, so we have that mechanism to go back if something has a problem. We have the ability to find them. We have the ability to take them to court."
And there are certain standards that must be met before the water is released into the river.
"We have to make sure any waste we take comes within our discharge permit parameters," Drof explained. "We have to make sure that what we accept does not make us, as the holder of that permit, to violate that permit. We make sure we protect the environment at the end of that discharge pipe."
Drof said that lately the opportunities for taking outside waste are down.
"There are a lot fewer customers than there have been in the past," he said, explaining that with low-water flush toilets and more recycling, there is less opportunity to treat waste from other communities.
What comes out of the pipe?
"The water we discharge is not drinking quality," Drof explained. "No wastewater treatment plant puts out drinking-quality water. It meets the permit requirements set out by (New York state for) the best uses of that river. It is treated to a point where it is considered to not be environmentally harmful.
"The plant that we have is unique in the fact that it's a physical chemical wastewater plant, and as such it is a good treatment regime for certain industrial wastes, and based on the legacy of Niagara Falls, this is the type of facility that proves to be more efficient in handling the variety of wastes that we receive, rather than a biological treatment facility.
"Our trusteeship is to ensure that we protect the environment at the end of the discharge pipe," he said.
And the potential for accepting fracking water?
The treatment facilities that Niagara Falls has are quite possibly going to be found to be very suitable to legally treat hydrofracking water -- if it is ever approved by New York state.
Currently there is no permit in New York state that allows for the treatment of fracking waste.
"There is a concern with any industrial waste that there could be toxins in there that could be considered to be (harmful) to health and well-being," Drof said. "Whether (hydrofracking wastewater) could be treated successfully at publicly owned treatment works or privately owned treatment works, that's for New York state to determine.
"The primary purpose of the Water Board is to provide safe drinking water and to do efficient wastewater treatment. To do anything that would take us away from that mission would be not in the best interests of one, the board, and two, the public it serves, or environmental health in general," Drof said.
At the moment, many eyes are on the city, the Water Authority and especially the Council led by Fruscione, Choolokian and Bob Anderson.
These three stood up to declare that hydrofracking -- even if approved by the state and even if the facility could handle it legally -- will not be accepted in Niagara Falls.
Some of the Water Authority executives led by McNally sought to fight the Council, suggesting they were ready to pave the way to hydrofracking profitability.
Newly appointed board member Kimble cast the deciding vote to thwart the effort of someday getting hydrofracking dollars in return for accepting chemicals into the river that may or may not be dangerous to the health of the people who drink the water.
Drof intelligently explained the law will be followed at the Water Board, and that even if hydrofracking was ever accepted, it would be treated at standards that the state DEC and EPA would approve.
Interesting issues were raised. One in particular requires a great deal of study.
What are we already accepting?
Is it really worse than hydrofracking water?
According to Drof, the Water Authority is following the law for New York state monitoring of waste.
Should we be taking outside waste at all? Or is it enough to handle our own waste generated locally?
The money earned conceivably helps reduce water bills for the people.
But at what cost to our river?
If one thing is clear, total transparency is necessary, and we commend the leaders of the Council -- Frusicone, Choolokian and Anderson -- and Corporation Counsel Johnson for taking a stand to make sure the public understands what waste (with what chemicals) from other communities is being accepted for profit here to be released into our drinking water.
This same kind of transparency must be followed too if the hydrofracking issue -- now apparently halted by the Council -- ever comes up again in Niagara Falls.
E-mail Ron Churchill at firstname.lastname@example.org.
|Niagara Falls Reporter||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||April 3 2012|