Legislature to consider criminal investigations
By Matt Ricchiazzi
The New York Post told readers “don’t go chasing this waterfall,” before describing visitors as “horrified.”
The Washington Post described the plume as “an alarming shade of black.”
Similar shock was expressed in papers from London to Los Angeles.
In response to the widespread outrage and international shock over last weekend’s now infamous discharge into the Niagara River at the base of the Falls, a special meeting is being called by the Niagara County Legislature to consider criminal investigations.
Next week legislators will take up a resolution calling on the entire Niagara Falls Water Board to resign, and another resolution calling for criminal investigations of the agency’s decision to release the now infamous black, foul-smelling sewage wastewater.
Many local elected officials are furious, worrying that the international incident could create lasting damage to the reputation of the Falls – and worse yet, could be a threat to public heath.
“If a non-public company did this there would be hell to pay, the fines would be tremendous, not to mention the likely legal action against those involved – likely prison time would be considered,” Grand Island Councilman Mike Madigan wrote on social media. “State officials say they have found no evidence of permanent environmental damage.”
Mr. Madigan thinks that the public needs more details, including how long will the environmental damage that was incurred last? What is the impact on the fisheries? Is it safe to be exposed to the water? Should boaters downstream avoid the area – and if so, for how long?
To date, the Department of Environmental Conservation has made no public comment on the quality of the river’s fish – and no ban has been suggested. But Mr. Madigan, an avid fisherman, worries about health risks that might be associated with eating the fish.
While most elected officials are irate, Mayor Paul Dyster is trying to manage the situation. He appoints a commissioner to the board and issued a statement articulating his disappointment regarding the agency’s lack of transparency.
The Water Board’s most recent adopted budget exceeded $27 million, more than $24 million of which was collected from residents through user fees. More than 37% of the budget is allocated toward salaries and benefits, and 25% to service the Board’s debt.
“While it is important to note that we regularly partner on items of importance to residents, the Niagara Falls Water Board operates independently of city government. I am disappointed in the unfortunate lapse in communication regarding Saturday’s incident and look forward to the Board’s full cooperation in their efforts to rectify the situation,” Mr. Dyster statement read.
Mayor Dyster’s statement is of little reassurance to Niagara County Legislature Majority Leader Randy R. Bradt, a Republican of North Tonawanda.
“The Board’s conduct here is beyond defense, and they have lost our confidence,” said Majority Leader Bradt, R-North Tonawanda. “We will ask the Niagara County District Attorney Caroline A. Wojtastzek and New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman to examine the facts surrounding this matter and to determine if criminal charges should be brought.”
Mr. Bradt said that news reports casting doubt on the Water Board’s public claim that proper procedures were followed – and that the release was within the acceptable parameters – had prompted the decision to move forward with a package of four resolutions. He wants all senior management at the Water Authority gone, and plans to call on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to look into possible violations of federal law.
“The local tourism promotion agency released figures two years ago that said Niagara County tourism was an $827 million-a-year industry,” Mr. Bradt said. “Since Saturday, Niagara Falls has been in every major media outlet around the country, and many around the world,” he added. “We can only imagine the damage done to tourism-related businesses due to this mismanagement by the Water Board.”
Rebecca Wydysh (R-Lewiston), Kathryn Lance (R-Wheatfield), and Will Collins (R-Lockport) drafted the resolutions following Governor Andrew Cuomo’s call for a DEC investigation.
One resolution calls out Water Board Chairman Dan O’Callaghan and others by name – including Gretchen Leffler, Colleen Larkin, Renae Kimble, and Nicholas Forster. The legislators want Water Board Executive Director Rolfe Porter, Wastewater Chief Operator Joe LaGamba, and Superintendent of Operations Bob Drury terminated for cause.
Mr. Porter claims that one of the sewage treatment plant’s five sediment filtration basins was taken offline and flushed out in preparation for contractors coming in Monday to begin work to upgrade the basin. Typically, such basin discharge is done as part of a regular maintenance schedule in the spring and the fall and lasts two to four hours, he explained following the incident.
Nick Melson, the City Administrator, was reportedly shocked.
“We were caught off guard. We had to do some digging ourselves to find out what was going on. And we are very upset that we weren’t notified,” he told local reporters.
“The failure of leadership here is astonishing,” Ms. Wydysh said. “As a legislator who represents a community that was downstream from this release, I’m concerned about the wanton disregard for my neighbors’ health. People in Lewiston have a right to know why this material was flushed into the Niagara River, when the DEC is now saying it should not have been.”
Chairman Bradt is confident that he has the votes to pass all four resolutions.