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Law requires sewage plants to publicize spills

Aerial views of the Bergen Point Sewage Plant

Aerial views of the Bergen Point Sewage Plant in West Babylon. (July 25, 2008) Credit: Newsday/Daniel Goodrich

Starting in May, sewage treatment plant operators in New York will have to let the public and state know when untreated or partially treated sewage spills or leaks into waters used for swimming, fishing and other activities.

The "Sewage Pollution Right to Know" law, signed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo earlier this month, requires publicly-owned treatment plants and sewer systems to notify the public within four hours of sewage entering bodies of water. They also must report the incident to the state Department of Environmental Conservation and Department of Health.

Currently, operators must only tell the state DEC and local health departments about discharges that may impact swimming, fishing or shellfishing areas.

"New Yorkers have a right to know when potentially harmful, untreated sewage is discharged into waterways in their communities," Cuomo said.

The bill also requires the state Department of Environmental Conservation to publish an annual report detailing discharge amounts and actions taken. The agency is working on draft regulations.

The legislation does not apply to the more than 100 privately-owned smaller treatment plants on Long Island.

Environmentalists hailed the measure, saying exposure to even small amounts of untreated sewage can cause short-term and chronic illnesses.

"The signing of this monumental public health law will allow families to make informed decisions and avoid unnecessary exposure to harmful sewage pollution," said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment.

The New York City Department of Environmental Protection initially opposed the bill but in a statement, a spokesman said "the legislation is consistent with our goal to better inform New Yorkers about our continuing work to improve water quality."

Nassau County, which operates five treatment plants, started an email notification system last fall to alert residents about sewage discharges, overflows or chemical spills. Residents must sign up for the service.

The county issued more than a dozen alerts since the program began, the majority related to blocked storm drains, Nassau Department of Public Works spokesman Mike Martino said.

Suffolk County didn't respond to a request for information.

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