PRESS RELEASE: Save the Sound Win for Sewage-Free Waters in Westchester

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

September 16, 2021

Contacts:

Laura McMillan, lmcmillan@savethesound.org
Martin Hain, mhain@savethesound.org

Save the Sound Win for Sewage-Free Waters in Westchester

Federal Judge Declines to Relieve New Rochelle, Pelham Manor, Larchmont, and Town of Mamaroneck of Responsibility for Sewage Pollution; Save the Sound’s Case Can Proceed

Mamaroneck, NY – Save the Sound announced today that the motion to dismiss brought by four towns that comprise the New Rochelle Sewer District in Save the Sound’s Clean Water Act enforcement case was denied. The case was brought by Save the Sound and Atlantic Clam Farms of Connecticut to address chronic sewage overflow discharges to Long Island Sound due to inadequately maintained sewage collection systems. Judge Cathy Seibel, United States District Judge for the Southern District of New York, denied the towns’ motion to dismiss in its entirety and ruled the case can go forward on all of Save the Sound’s claims.

Save the Sound President Curt Johnson said, “We are gratified that the court agreed with what we have been saying for over six years now: poorly maintained sewage collection systems that result in discharge of raw and partially treated sewage to local waters and Long Island Sound violate the Clean Water Act—period. We’re glad that successful negotiations have proceeded with Westchester County and other municipalities, and are hopeful that we can return to resolving the pollution issues with the four towns of the New Rochelle Sewer District through discussion and collaboration rather than litigation, though we are of course prepared to continue to litigate if necessary.”

In 2015, Save the Sound, along with Atlantic Clam Farms, brought this action against the County of Westchester and 11 municipalities in the Long Island Sound watershed. Save the Sound claimed that the towns had failed to adequately maintain their aging sewage systems and, as a result, millions of gallons of untreated and partially treated sewage were being discharged to, and polluting, Long Island Sound and its tributaries in violation of the Clean Water Act. Untreated and partially treated sewage discharges threaten public health and aquatic life, leading to beach closures and the decade-long shellfish closure on the Westchester coastline.

Shortly after bringing the case, Save the Sound entered discussions with the County and all of the towns to fix the problems without pursuing costly litigation in court. As a result of these negotiations, five municipalities have committed to studying and repairing more than 149 linear miles of sewer lines, and instituting capital and management plans for improved future maintenance. Additionally, $200,000 has been committed to environmental benefit projects that will improve water quality in local rivers and Long Island Sound, such as projects to capture and treat polluted stormwater runoff from parking lots before it enters our waterways. Settlements have been reached with Port Chester, Village of Mamaroneck, White Plains, Rye Brook, and Rye. Fruitful discussions are ongoing with the County of Westchester and the towns of Harrison and Scarsdale.

In 2020, the four municipalities that are part of the New Rochelle Sewer District—New Rochelle, Pelham Manor, Larchmont, and Town of Mamaroneck—pulled out of these collaborative discussions and filed a lengthy motion to dismiss the case. These towns asked the Judge to rule that Save the Sound could not enforce the Clean Water Act as to pollution coming from their sewer systems. The County and the remaining towns did not join the motion to dismiss but chose to remain on a collaborative course.

On September 14, 2021, in an extensive ruling from the bench, Judge Cathy Seibel denied the motion of the New Rochelle Sewer District in its entirety and ruled Save the Sound’s case can proceed. The court held that the allegations in the complaint set forth a violation of the Clean Water Act and stated that

  1. the four towns’ discharges contributed to illegal ongoing polluted discharges from County-owned “Overflow Retention Facilities,”
  2. there was no “diligent prosecution” by government agencies directed at these towns for these overflows,
  3. the fact that the discharges go through County-owned pipes and facilities does not exempt the towns from Clean Water Act requirements, and
  4. the discharge of inadequately treated sewage constitutes a public nuisance.

The case has not yet gone to trial, and this decision is not a final decision on the merits. The decision simply means that the allegations in the complaint properly establish a Clean Water Act claim, and that Save the Sound can bring those claims.

Save the Sound Senior Legal Counsel Roger Reynolds stated, “Judge Seibel’s decision establishes that towns have an absolute obligation to address sewage pollution that reaches rivers and the Sound’s coastal waters from aging and under-maintained sewage collection systems. Recent storms like Elsa, Henri, and Ida demonstrate that storms are only getting worse, and towns that do not take pro-active steps to maintain their sewage collection systems are increasingly endangering the health of the public and the environment. This action is part of our comprehensive campaign for a sewage free Long Island Sound. We are engaging towns across the Sound watershed through collaboration (and litigation if necessary) to eliminate untreated sewage discharges hurting the health of the Sound and its surrounding communities.”

Edan Rotenberg from Super Law Group, who served as lead counsel on the case for plaintiffs, stated, “This is one of a growing number of cases finding that under the Clean Water Act, towns whose sewage collection systems contribute too much volume and overwhelm larger collection systems are ultimately liable for the pollution they cause.”  

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