Sewage Pollution Right to Know Act: Keeping NY’s Beachgoers Safe & Informed

Westchester residents can learn directly and immediately about sewage spills that might alter their plans for being on the water.

Thanks to New York’s Sewage Pollution Right to Know Act, the Westchester County Health Department, and the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation, post public notices of sewage spills on their websites within hours of a spill.

The Sewage Pollution Right to Know Act took effect May 1, 2013. It requires the operators of public facilities such as treatment plants, pump stations, and sewer lines to let the public know whenever there is a sewage spill.

Within two hours of discovering a spill, the operator must report the discharge to the state DEC and the local health department.

Within four hours, the operator must report the discharge to the mayor or town supervisor of the municipality in which the spill is occurring; to the mayor and town supervisor of adjoining municipalities; and to the public.

The public reports must include location, time and date, duration, and volume; whether the sewage is treated and, if so, how much; the cause of the overflow, and steps taken to contain it (if these things are known)

The law applies to all city, town, and village governments in the state that have sewage infrastructure that they maintain or operate, and all county and statesewer facilities and infrastructure.

DEC’s public notification is currently in the form of a spreadsheet that can be downloaded from DEC’s website. By 2015 sewage discharge notifications will be available on the statewide website and mobile app, where the public will be able to sign up for email and/or text notifications of sewage overflows in their community.

The right to know law is valuable for the obvious reason that it will give people more information quickly about pollution in New York’s waters.

But it also allows the state DEC and others to compile and publish a database of spills, which over time will provide useful information about trends or about areas and facilities that are a bigger problem than others.

The database shows that since May 1, 2013, there have been 16 spills reported in the Westchester portion of the Sound’s watershed. Most reports were of an “unknown” amount of sewage. The largest amount reported was 140,000 gallons, at a Westchester County pump station in Larchmont during heavy rain on March 30 of this year.

The other obvious value of the right to know law is that it will continue to bring attention to sewage spills and the serious health threats they cause at Long Island Sound’s beaches. At Save the Sound we are working to turn that attention into action by collaborating with local residents to persuade their communities to make the necessary investments in fixing their sewers, pump stations, and other infrastructure.

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